Burgtheater Vienna: Treading the Boards of Vienna’s Famous Theatre
“Burgtheater-Actor”, “Burgtheater-German”, “Burgtheater-Director” — Burgtheater Wien is more than just a national theatre. It’s an establishment that holds a very special place in Vienna’s society.
Das Burgtheater Wien ist mehr als nur ein Theater. Es ist eine Institution der österreichischen Kulturlandschaft. Und zwar ist es so angesehen, dass SchauspielerInnen, die mit dem Burgtheater in Verbindung stehen, fast schon selbst zur Institution werden.
The biggest German-language theatre in Europe
Burgtheater Wien, affectionately called just “the Burg” by the Viennese, is Europe’s biggest spoken theatre using German. It‘s also the second-oldest spoken theatre in Europe overall, trailing only the Comédie-Française.
The long history of the Burgtheater begins in 1741 on Michaelerplatz in Vienna. Because of its close proximity to the Hofburg (the Imperial Palace), it was soon called “K.K Hoftheater nächst der Burg”, which literally means “the imperial theatre next to the palace”.
The name stuck, even when the theatre was relocated after 130 years. In 1888, it moved to an impressive building on the Ring Boulevard, where it’s still located today. It was, however, only renamed “Burgtheater” in 1919.
Good looks but horrible acoustics
The new building on the Ring Boulevard was a novelty. Designed by Gottfried Semper and Karl Hasenauer, it was the first building of its kind to boast electrical lighting. Furthermore, the staircases were decorated with a ceiling painting created by Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch.
In spite of the beautiful exterior and interior, however, the audience was rather unimpressed by the acoustics of the new theatre. After vehement complaints by the public, the auditorium was finally refurbished in 1897, which improved the theatre experience greatly.
Interestingly, the lacklustre acoustics also led to a fascinating development — a new way of speaking on stage. To make it easier for the audience to understand what was being said on stage, “Burgtheater-German” was invented. This is a particularly clear and enunciated diction, which equalises the differences in pronunciation between actors coming from various regions of the German-speaking world.
The Burgtheater’s many venues
Like many other cultural institutions in Vienna, the Burgtheater fell victim to an air raid in World War II and burned down on 12 April 1945. The auditorium and stage were completely destroyed, but the ceiling painting done by Klimt was miraculously spared and remained mostly intact.
Ten years later, the building’s restoration was finally finished and the Burgtheater moved from its interim venue at the Ronacher back to its prestigious location on the Ring Boulevard.
Today, the Burgtheater also includes three other venues: Akademietheater, Casino am Schwarzenbergplatz and Vestibül. In total, these four host more than 400,000 visitors at over 800 performances each year. Usually, they show about 25 to 30 premieres per year, including some world premieres.
The Burgtheater itself has room for 1,272 people and uses a repertoire system: each season, 30 different pieces are shown. In 2014, Karin Bergmann was appointed director of the Burgtheater.
Burgtheater-Actor, a phenomenon
In the 19th century, a Viennese oddity developed: The “Burgtheater-Actor”, a position carrying fame and glory to this day.
The Burgtheater-Actor has its origin in a time when the Burgtheater played more than just a cultural role in Vienna’s society. The nobility and the bourgeoisie were facing strict social boundaries in everyday life — unless the two groups met at the Burgtheater. While they still did not actually mingle there, the actors on stage turned out to be a uniting element and quickly gained a high status in society.
Rumours and scandals about Burgtheater-Actors were much-discussed and have always been a favourite topic for the Viennese. Audience favourites were quickly identified. Their popularity sold tickets and their hairstyles were copied by the public. Even funerals of particularly prominent Burgtheater-Actors were important parts of the social calendar and in a way, they still are to this day.
Actors of particular merit, traditionally the longest-serving ones, are awarded the title of Doyen and Doyenne. This honour is for life and only after the current Doyen or Doyenne expires, a new one is named. Therefore, there is only ever one Doyen or Doyenne, tasked with officially representing the Burgtheater to the public.
But the people on stage are not the only ones that the public talks about. The naming of a new director is usually a hot topic in some circles of Vienna’s society as well.
The Burgtheater audience is generally known to be quite vocal. It’s not unheard of for rather more conservative theatre-goers to be making their feelings heard at productions too modern for their tastes, potentially causing scandals. It’s happenings like these that ensure that a visit to the Burgtheater can turn into an exceptional experience — regardless of what’s happening on stage.