Vienna’s opera house was the first building commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph as part of the grand civic restructuring that took place when the Ringstraße was built. Designed as a splendid boulevard, the Ringstraße was one of the outstanding urban achievements of the 19th century. The new Opera House, situated where fashionable Kärntnerstraße merges onto the Ringstraße, was to be the symbol of this grandiose renewal.
When the opera house was completed in 1869, however, many criticized the exterior, which was likened to a ‘sunken box.’ One of its architects, E. van der Nüll, even committed suicide in the wake of the controversy. In truth, the building does appear inertly massive in comparison with the surrounding architecture, but with an opera house, it’s what’s inside that counts, and what's inside is very splendid indeed.
Hoping to orient myself in the vast structure before attending a performance as well as wanting to learn a little of its history, I took one of the regularly scheduled tours. I was surprised at how many people had come. There are actually two tours, one in German and the other in English. I struck up a conversation with a couple from England. They weren’t opera fans, but, like many of the others taking the tour, had been told the opera house was a ‘must see’ and so had come.
Perhaps in keeping with this general audience, the tour was a fairly broad overview of the history of the opera house and its day-to-day running. The Staatsoper stages an astonishing number of productions a year – about 55 different operas with as many as five different productions held each week. Not surprisingly, the sets and costumes are stored in warehouses elsewhere and brought each day to the Staatsoper in vast shipping vans.
The tour goes through a series of famous rooms, such as the Mahler Room, with its Gobelin tapestries depicting scenes from die Zauberflöte (it was previously called the "Mozart room"), and the Mable Hall, with its stylized modern murals. We took turns crowding before the narrow doorway to the Emperor’s Tea Room to view the sumptuous interior. It can be rented, we were informed for a mere 1,000 euros per hour!
The tour concludes in the house itself, where stagehands were preparing for that evening’s performance. The Staatsoper has one of the largest stages in the world, and one of the most sophisticated as well. Different musical effects can be produced by raising or lowering the orchestra pit, for example. Rather than surtitles, small electronic screens at each seat provide translations of the libretto in English or German.
What is perhaps most impressive, however, is that with over 500 inexpensive stehplatz (standing room places), virtually anyone can afford a night at the opera in Vienna. In Austria, such cultural institutions are not just for the wealthy; they are woven into the fabric of everyday life. It’s that sense of shared cultural traditions that makes Vienna truly special.