Vienna State Opera

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Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera at night

The Vienna State Opera (German: Wiener Staatsoper) is an opera house – and opera company – with a history dating back to the mid-19th century. It is located in the centre of Vienna, Austria. It was originally called the Vienna Court Opera (Wiener Hofoper). In 1920, with the replacement of the Habsburg Monarchy by the First Republic of Austria, it was renamed the Vienna State Opera. The members of the Vienna Philharmonic are recruited from its orchestra.

Marble staircase sweeps up from the main entrance to the first floor

History[edit]

History of the building[edit]

Inside one of the halls

Construction[edit]

The building was the first major building on the Vienna Ringstraße commissioned by the Viennese "city expansion fund". Work commenced on the building in 1861 and was completed in 1869, following plans drawn up by architects August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll. It was built in the Neo-Renaissance style.

The Ministry of the Interior had commissioned a number of reports into the availability of certain building materials, with the result that stones long not seen in Vienna were used, such as Wöllersdorfer Stein, for plinths and free-standing, simply-divided buttresses, the famously hard stone from Kaisersteinbruch, whose colour was more appropriate than that of Kelheimerstein, for more lushly decorated parts. The somewhat coarser-grained Kelheimerstein (also known as Solnhof Plattenstein) was intended as the main stone to be used in the building of the opera house, but the necessary quantity was not deliverable. Breitenbrunner stone was suggested as a substitute for the Kelheimer stone, and stone from Jois was used as a cheaper alternative to the Kaiserstein. The staircases were constructed from polished Kaiserstein, while most of the rest of the interior was decorated with varieties of marble.

The decision was made to use dimension stone for the exterior of the building. Due to the monumental demand for stone, stone from Sóskút, widely used in Budapest, was also used. Three Viennese masonry companies were employed to supply enough masonry labour: Eduard Hauser (still in existence today), Anton Wasserburger and Moritz Pranter. The foundation stone was laid on 20 May 1863.

Public response[edit]

Rear of the opera house, showing the stage wings

The building was, however, not very popular with the public. On the one hand, it did not seem as grand as the Heinrichshof, a private residence which was destroyed in World War II (and replaced in 1955 by the Opernringhof). Moreover because the level of Ringstraße was raised by a metre in front of the opera house after its construction had begun, the latter was likened to "a sunken treasure chest" and, in analogy to the military disaster of 1866 (the Battle of Königgrätz), was deprecatingly referred to as "the 'Königgrätz' of architecture". Eduard van der Nüll committed suicide, and barely ten weeks later Sicardsburg died from tuberculosis so neither architect saw the completion of the building. The opening premiere was Don Giovanni, by Mozart, on May 25, 1869. Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth (Sissi) were present.

Wartime bombing and redesign[edit]

Towards the end of World War II, on March 12, 1945, the opera was set alight by an American bombardment.The front section, which had been walled off as a precaution, remained intact including the foyer, with frescoes by Moritz von Schwind, the main stairways, the vestibule and the tea room. The auditorium and stage were, however, destroyed by flames as well as almost the entire décor and props for more than 120 operas with around 150,000 costumes. The State Opera was temporarily housed at the Theater an der Wien and at the Vienna Volksoper.

Lengthy discussions took place about whether the opera house should be restored to its original state on its original site, or whether it should be completely demolished and rebuilt, either on the same location or on a different site. Eventually the decision was made to rebuild the opera house as it had been, and the main restoration experts involved were Ernst Kolb (1948–1952) and Udo Illig (1953–1956).

The Austrian Federal Chancellor Leopold Figl made the decision in 1946 to have a functioning opera house again by 1949. An architectural competition was announced, which was won by Erich Boltenstern. The submissions had ranged from a complete restructuring of the auditorium to a replica of the original design; Boltenstern decided on a design similar to the original with some modernisation in keeping with the design of the 1950s. In order to achieve a good acoustic, wood was the favoured building material, at the advice of, among others, Arturo Toscanini. In addition, the number of seats in the parterre (stalls) was reduced, and the fourth gallery, which had been fitted with columns, was restructured so as not to need columns. The facade, entrance hall and the "Schwind" foyer were restored and remain in their original style.

Cast of the last performance in the old building; Götterdämmerung, June 30, 1944

In the meantime, the opera company, which had at first been performing in the Volksoper, had moved rehearsals and performances to Theater an der Wien, where, on May 1, 1945, after the liberation and re-independence of Austria from the Nazis, the first performances were given. In 1947, the company went on tour to London.

Due to the appalling conditions at Theater an der Wien, the opera company leadership tried to raise significant quantities of money to speed up reconstruction of the original opera house. Many private donations were made, as well as donations of building material from the Soviets, who were very interested in the rebuilding of the opera. The mayor of Vienna had receptables placed in many sites around Vienna for people to donate coins only. In this way, everyone in Vienna could say they had participated in the reconstruction and feel pride in considering themselves part owners.

However, in 1949, there was only a temporary roof on the Staatsoper, as construction work continued. It was not until November 5, 1955, (after the Austrian State Treaty), that the Staatsoper could be reopened with a performance of Beethoven's Fidelio, conducted by Karl Böhm.[1] The American Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, was present. The television station ORF used the occasion to make its first live broadcast, at a time when there were only c. 800 televiewers in the whole of Austria. The new auditorium had a reduced capacity of about 2,276, including 567 standing room places.[2] The ensemble, which had remained unified until the opening, crumbled in the following years, and slowly an international ensemble formed.

History of the company after the war[edit]

In 1945, the Wiener Mozart-Ensemble was formed, which put on world-renowned guest performances and became known particularly for its singing and playing culture. The Austrian conductor Josef Krips was the founder and mentor, who had only survived the Nazi era (given his Jewish heritage) thanks to luck and help from colleagues. At the end of the war, Krips started the renovation of the Staatoper, and was able to implement his aesthetic principles, including the departure from the Romantic Mozart ideal with a voluminous orchestral sound. Instead, qualities more associated with chamber music were featured, as well as a clearer, lighter sound, which would later come to be known as "typically Viennese". Singers who worked with Krips during this time were Erich Kunz, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Wilma Lipp, among others.

As early as 1947, the Mozart-Ensemble was playing guest performances at the Royal Opera House in London, with Mozart's Don Giovanni. Richard Tauber, who had fled from the Nazis, sang Don Ottavio; three months later he died, and was remembered for singing with "half a lung" in order to fulfil his dream. many other artists became associated with the Mozart-Ensemble, for example Karl Böhm, but their role was still greatly peripheral, in a straightforward or assisting role. This was the beginning of Krips' worldwide career, which would take him to the most prominent houses in the world. Until his death in 1974, Krips was regarded as one of the most important Maestri (conductors/music directors) of the Staatsoper.

On July 1, 1998, a historical broadcast took place, as Austria undertook its first presidency of the European Union. Fidelio was broadcast live from the Vienna State Opera to the 15 capital cities of the EU.

Present day[edit]

The company[edit]

Vienna State Opera interior

The Vienna State Opera is closely linked to the Vienna Philharmonic, which is an incorporated society of its own, but whose members are recruited from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera.

The Wiener Staatsoper is one of the busiest opera houses in the world producing 50 to 60 operas per year and ten ballet productions in approximately 300 performances. It is quite common to find a different opera being produced each day of a week. As such, the Staatsoper employs over 1000 people. As of 2008, the annual operating budget of the Staatsoper was 100 million Euros with slightly more than 50% coming in the form of a state subsidy.

The opera company operates a repertory system: more than 50 productions are staged every year, and there is a performance nearly every day for ten months of the year.

The opera's current musical director is Franz Welser-Möst.

Gustav Mahler[edit]

Gustav Mahler was one of the many conductors who have worked in Vienna. During his tenure (1897-1907), Mahler cultivated a new generation of singers, such as Anna Bahr-Mildenburg and Selma Kurz, and recruited a stage designer who replaced the lavish historical stage decors with sparse stage scenery corresponding to modernistic, Jugendstil tastes. Mahler also introduced the practice of dimming the lighting in the theatre during performances, which was initially not appreciated by the audience. However, Mahler's reforms were maintained by his successors.

Herbert von Karajan[edit]

Herbert von Karajan introduced the practice of performing operas exclusively in their original language instead of being translated into German. He also strengthened the ensemble and regular principal singers and introduced the policy of predominantly engaging guest singers. He began a collaboration with La Scala in Milan, in which both productions and orchestrations were shared. This created an opening for the prominent members of the Viennese ensemble to appear in Milan, especially to perform works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Strauss.

Ballet companies merge[edit]

At the beginning of the 2005/2006 season, the ballet companies of the Staatsoper and the Volksoper were united under the direction of Gyula Harangozó, which led to a reduction in the number of performers in the resulting ensemble. This has resulted in an increase in the number of guest stars engaged to work in the ballet. The practice of combining the two ballet companies proved an artistic failure, and Harangozó left when his contract expired in 2010.

Starting with the 2010/2011 season, a new company has been formed called Wiener Staatsballet under the direction of former Paris Opera Ballet star dancer Manuel Legris. Legris eliminated Harangozós's policy of presenting nothing but traditional story ballets with guest artists in the leading roles, and is concentrating on establishing a strong in-house ensemble and has restored evenings of mixed bill programs, featuring works of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe, and many contemporary choreographers, as well as a reduced schedule of the classic story ballets.

140th anniversary season[edit]

2009 marked the 140th anniversary of the Vienna Opera House. To celebrate this milestone a revolutionary idea designed to reach out and embrace a new audience was conceived. A giant 50 sqm screen was placed on the side of the opera house facing Kärntnerstraße. In four months live broadcasts of over 60 of the most famous operas were transmitted in this way, including stellar performances of Madama Butterfly, The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. This hugely successful venture brought a new wave of operatic excitement and fervor to the many tourists and locals who experienced this cultural first. During daytime the screen displays a replica of the Opera House's facade, as it obstructs a considerable part of the building, along with information about upcoming performances.

The opera house and children[edit]

Interior

The Vienna State Opera is particularly open to children: under Holender's direction (he has three children of his own), the opera house has become well known for its children's productions, which are performed in a tent on the roof of the Staatsoper. Recent examples include Peter Pan, Das Traumfresserchen (de) (The Dream Gobbler), Der 35. Mai (The 35th of May), C. F. E. Horneman's Aladdin, Bastien und Bastienne and Wagners Nibelungenring für Kinder (Wagner's Ring for children). In addition to this, there is a production of The Magic Flute every year for 9- and 10-year-olds, decorated like the Opernball.

The opera house also has an opera school for boys and girls between the ages of eight and fourteen, which takes place in the afternoons after regular school. The children are introduced to music theatre and the prospect of becoming opera singers. The company recruits singers for children's roles in its productions from this opera school. Twice every season there is a special matinee performance of the opera school. In 2006, the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, they performed a 20-minute miniature opera Der kleine Friedrich arranged from songs of Mozart by Janko Kastelic and Claudia Toman.

"Standing room only" audience[edit]

Poster

Immediately before each performance, cheap, standing room tickets are sold. These are popular with all age groups, and now have an almost legendary regular clientele, which allegedly is merciless in showing its displeasure with a performance loudly and unambiguously, but is even louder in voicing approval.

Der Neue Merker[edit]

Every performance at the Wiener Staatsoper is reviewed by an independent company in the opera publication Der Neue Merker (The New Judge) which is printed in about 2000 copies. This is unusual in that most opera magazines prefer to concentrate on new productions and premieres. There is an online version parallel to the publication, which receives (as of March 2007) an average of 10000 visitors a week, and therefore is one of the most successful German-language opera portals.

Opera ball[edit]

For many decades, the opera house has been the venue of the Vienna Opera Ball. It is an internationally renowned event, which takes place annually on the last Thursday in Fasching. Those in attendance often include visitors from around the world, especially prominent names in business and politics. The opera ball receives media coverage from a range of outlets.

The opera ball in 1968 was the occasion for a protest, at which the organisation was criticised for being "elite" (due to the high prices), "conceited" (due to the opulent display of wealth for the newspapers and cameras) and "reactionary" (for upholding an allegedly outdated culture). There was violence between the demonstrators and the police.

Directors / General managers[edit]

In chronological order, the directors (or general managers) of the Staatsoper have been:

Prominent artists[edit]

Karajan's principle of guest principals remains today; many great artists have appeared at the Staatsoper.

Singers[edit]

Conductors[edit]

Conductors who also held the position of music director

Directors, set designers, and costume designers[edit]

Opera title and year of debut at the Vienna State Opera in parentheses:

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Tim Smith, "Vienna State Opera 50th Anniversary Reopening Gala: An Illustrious History", p. 4, PBS. Retrieved 12 April 2013
  2. ^ "Vienna State Opera Prices and Seating plan" (in German). Vienna State Opera. Retrieved 2013-07-17. 
  3. ^ Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky, Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere, Yale University Press, 2001, p. 248. ISBN 0-300-08713-6
Much of the information in this article is taken from the German Wikipedia article.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 48°12′10″N 16°22′06.5″E / 48.20278°N 16.368472°E / 48.20278; 16.368472