Opened in May of 1869, the Vienna Opera House was one of the first major buildings on the Vienna Ringstrasse commissioned by the Viennese “city expansion fund”. Unfortunately, both the public and the emperor did not like the finished product, designed by the architects Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll. This response led van der Nüll to commit suicide and a few weeks later, Sicardsburg died from a heart attack, leaving neither to see the building’s opening. This whole affair led Emperor Franz Joseph I to always say the following when asked about the building as he felt he had some blame in the deaths of the architects: “Es war sehr schön. Es hat mich sehr gefreut,” (It was very nice. I enjoyed it very much). I learned this story from the tour the school took of the Opera House.
Between the walk from the intermission halls to the actual auditorium, we passed a room, not pictured in this article, filled with sculpted busts of all the major directors of the Vienna Opera. These included Gustav Mahler (1897–1907), who introduced the dimming of lights during performances, and Herbert von Karajan (1956-1964), who introduced the practice of performing operas exclusively in their original language instead of being translated into German.
In addition to learning about how the sets are prepared, we also talked about the Vienna Opera Ball. Two days before the event, which takes place annually on the last Thursday in the Fasching season, all the seats are removed and a new floor even to the stage is built. It is the most important of all Viennese balls, with the heads of state and members of high society attending. The whole affair is streamed live by the ORF and is often the front page in most newspapers the following day.
In terms of the actual event, the dress code is evening dress, meaning white tie and tails for men and floor-length gowns for women. The ball begins around 10pm, when the Austrian president and his guest enter the imperial balcony. After a performance of the Austrian national anthem and then European anthem, there are performances by the state opera ballet company and classical arias sung by the opera starts. Then 180 debutante couples are introduced and perform a series of dances. The opening ceremony is complete after the last dance of the debutantes: Blue Danube by Johann Strauss. The floor is then opened to all guests and the party continues until 6am the next morning.
Today, the Vienna State Opera is one of the busiest opera houses in the world; they produce 50-60 operas per year and ten ballet productions in more than 350 performances. They specifically try to never show the same opera or ballet on two consecutive nights as a way to increase audience attendance. While we were in Vienna, our options were the opera Don Giovanni by Mozart or the ballet Onegin by John Cranko. Being the home of Viennese Opera I of course went to the ballet, accompanied by Michael, while the rest of the group went the following night to the opera.
As students, we decided to get standing tickets, the upside being they cost at most four Euro, the downside being we had to show up at the Opera House at least two hours before the performance. We managed to get a place inside the building (the line often stretches out into the street and around the building) and sat for an hour and a half until they opened the doors. Being early, however, guaranteed us a good standing area.
The performance itself began at 7:30 and ran about two hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions which we used to rest our feet and get some snacks. It was a beautiful rendition of the ballet as can only be expected for a performance at the Vienna Opera House.