Vienna Stories and Tips

Vienna: A feast for the ear

The Grand Staircase at the Staatsoper Photo, Vienna, Austria

The lovely thing about taking solo holidays is that I can do precisely what I want. So, in Vienna, I chose to spend three nights at the opera, followed by an evening at the Musikverein. Mind you, this was after attending three performances earlier in the week in Munich.

Overindulgence? Perhaps. But I’ve never enjoyed practicing restraint. The Viennese musical smorgasbord poses only one difficulty: so much music, so little time.

Happily, I had priorities which helped sort it all out. A month before departing, I’d already booked tickets for four evenings in Vienna. What most surprised me was how inexpensive it was: Three nights at the opera and a concert at the Musikverein ran less than $100. Granted, I didn’t select the most expensive seats, but I didn’t skimp, either. Austria’s generous subsidization of the arts benefits not just its citizens but tourists as well.

While researching events and tickets online, I soon encountered the "services" that specialize in procuring tickets for foreign tourists. It goes without saying a hefty fee is tacked on. Frankly, I don’t see any need for these intermediaries. Almost every major opera house or concert hall in Vienna maintains its own website with links for direct booking. Granted, some of these booking systems operate exclusively in German. Still, by using the BabelFish translator to bolster my rusty elementary German, I navigated my way through these systems without major difficulty.

In short, anyone who’s dealt with the vagaries of Ticketron or trolled for a cheap airline ticket online would probably feel comfortable reserving tickets for musical performances in Vienna. Most of the sites provide a detailed seating chart, with available seats color coded by price, even showing standing room. (The Austrians have my vote for "most egalitarian" for the high number of decent standing room seats they make available.)

However, a bit of knowledge about how the concert halls and opera houses are laid out is useful. One seat might cost 36 Euros while the one directly behind it is 18. This is particularly true for box seats. Why so?

The secret is this: in a box, there are typically two or three expensive seats along the front. Behind that are two or three moderately-priced seats with views partially blocked by the people sitting in front. Even further back in the box are several seats with poor views; in fact, these are little more than standing room seats with plush stools to periodically rest upon. In other cases, an inexpensive seat set among expensive ones might have an obstructed view.

Now, the question is: How picky to be about the view? I’m willing to put up with the inconvenience of occasionally craning a bit to the side to see the entire stage. I’m even happy with standing room if I know I won’t have to remain standing the entire time. It’s more important to me to be able to hear well than have unobstructed sight lines. Given the overall acoustical excellence of Vienna’s concert halls and opera houses, I was content in the first tier, twice in the second row of a box.

One of the more intimate places to attend an opera is the Wiener Kammeroper, a small company specializing in chamber operas. What is refreshing about this company is its no-holds-barred take on baroque and classical works, injecting a dose of modernism into the performances by mixing authentic instruments from the 18th century with daring lighting and staging techniques. The message is clear: this music is timeless.

The Kammeroper also forges boldly ahead with new works as well, staging numerous Austrian premières. Fresh young voices rather than big names are the draw for this relatively young (fifty years old) company.

Frankly, I really don’t care to see yet another production of La Bohème, no matter how beautifully done. I’d rather see something new, even if it isn’t an unmitigated success. This was the case with the Kammeroper’s production of Ballo.mortale, several short pieces by Monteverdi - Il lamento d’Arianna, Combatimento di Tancredi et Clorinda, and Ballo delle ingrate – woven together into a loose narrative.

It was performed with great verve but, alas, a few scenes were overindulgently extended. However, I will long remember the scene in which the Turkish warrior maiden Clorinda is dressed for battle by her attendants. It was beautifully done. The ensemble singing was particularly strong throughout the production, which pleased me as I’ve always enjoyed ensembles more than arias.

My second night at the opera was at the Wien Staatsoper. I had seen the company years and years ago when they made a rare appearance at Washington’s Kennedy Center. I still hope to see them perform one of my favorite operas, Der Rosenkavalier someday; it was a source of considerable frustration to learn they were performing it two nights after I had to return to the States. I "made do" with a performance of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, known almost universally for its signature aria "Fi-ga-ro!   Figaro-Figaro-Figaro….Feee-Gaaah-ROOOW!.

Yeah, that one.

Much to my delight, the Figaro in question performed this with such freshness that all seemed new again.

The entire evening was a delight. First there was the pleasure of entering the opera house and ascending that famous staircase, pausing for a moment at the top to take it all in. When I entered my box, I was greeted by what seemed at first to be a rather querulous elderly Viennese woman, but when she heard my accent, she broke into flawless English: "Where are you from?" It turned out she’d lived for twenty years not far from where I live in Maryland and that she had dual Austrian/U.S. citizenship. We were soon thick as thieves, indulging in political gossip. I urged her to exercise her voting rights to help oust that awful man (her words, mind you) from office.

At the head of the grand staircase, Staatsoper

I rounded out my Viennese operatic experience at the Volksoper, which specializes in operettas and musicals. I opted not to see "My Fair Lady" or "West Side Story," but to see instead an operetta called Der Opernball ("The Opera Ball") by Richard Heuberger. The Volksoper lived up to its reputation as a thoroughly polished and entertaining company. I’d recommend it to those who aren’t terribly sure if they’d like opera or not. What’s not to like about a gorgeous opera house, sprightly music performed by a crack orchestra, a procession of stunning sets and costumes, and a thoroughly engaging cast?

Admittedly, one slight setback is that there were no surtitles or translation screens as provided at the Staatsoper. Since the plot was fairly intricate, it was hard at first to follow, but soon I caught on: the plot was essentially an inverted Cosí Fan Tutte, only this time the women were testing the fidelity of their husbands rather than vice versa. It was pure Viennese froth, replete with a flirtatious parlor maid (who steals the show), a heartless roué, and a scene in which confusion predictably reigns at a masked ball. If Der Opernball were edible, it would be a Mozartkügel, one of those sweet confections beloved by the Viennese and relished by countless tourists.

Volksoper box

But without question, the most memorable performance was at the Musikverein. I had decided to take my chances at a performance by the Musikgymnasium Wien (the Vienna Music School), which is under the patronage of the Vienna Philharmonic. Needless to say, this is no ordinary music school.

There is also no more enthusiastic an audience than one composed of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings. I was a little apprehensive, I admit, that the performance might be on the amateurish side, but this apprehension vanished within seconds of the opening bars of Dvorák’s "Carnival Overture." In fact, I’ll risk sounding like an utter rustic by admitting my jaw dropped open and stayed open for most of the piece.

It was that sound. Never have I heard anything like it, the sound in that hall. Its immediate effect was a sort of galvanic JOLT, sans electrical wiring. Then I was swimming, floating, whirling in a sea of sound. Words can’t describe it.

I had picked this concert for one particular work, Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. Years ago, listening to this piece had been part of a nightly ritual which sustained me through a difficult semester of college. Then I had moved on. I’d never heard the piece in concert.

But there I was at the Musikverein, twenty-eight years later, tears streaming down my face as I listened to a gifted young pianist, Maria Raduta, peforming this marvellous work. I felt I had come full circle.

Bruno Walter once wrote, "Conducting here [at the Musikverein] for the first time was for me an unforgettable experience. Before then I had not known how beautiful music could be."

I know just how he felt.

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