At almost 150 years of age, the Vienna State Opera is a Viennese institution. It’s seen countless performances of opera and ballet, world premieres, famous directors and conductors, celebrity audiences, a few wars and reopenings, and even a handful of film shoots. And while many things have changed over the decades, one thing remains the same: the Vienna State Opera always bounces back
Grand opening with Sisi and Franzl
The Vienna State Opera’s first opening premiere took place in 1869. Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” was performed in the presence of the Emperor Franz Joseph and the Empress Elisabeth. The new opera house climbed to international fame under its first few directors. It was Gustav Mahler, in particular, who made sure the State Opera would make a name for itself.
The artistic development of the opera house was somewhat hampered by World War II. Unfortunately, it was also curbed physically when a bomb fell in March 1945 and substantially wrecked the building itself.
To keep the performances going during the rebuilding of the opera house, the opera company temporarily moved into the Vienna Volksoper (Vienna People’s Opera) and the Theater an der Wien. In November 1955, more than 10 years after the bomb had hit, the Vienna State Opera was finally reopened on the Ring Boulevard with a rendition of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” led by Karl Böhm. The performance was broadcast on Austrian TV and is commonly seen as an important sign that the Second Republic of Austria was alive and well.
A pillar of innovation for the cultural landscape
Despite the setbacks of World War II, the Vienna State Opera has become an important part of today’s cultural landscape — not just for Vienna, but for the whole world.
Every season, the company puts on about 350 performances of more than 60 different productions! This is made possible thanks to a repertory system. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra is the only orchestra of international standing which performs daily!
The Vienna State Opera has always aspired to create synergies between different art forms. This is why, for example, the iron curtain (the fire barrier that separates the stage and auditorium) serves as a showcase for contemporary visual artists. Since 1998, the wall is getting a redesign each year. The current design has been done by American artist Tauba Auerbach.
High culture made accessible
The Vienna State Opera sees it as part of its cultural mission to make opera and ballet accessible for as many people as possible, independent of their financial status or previous experience with the genre. Of course, some of the tickets at the opera house go for exorbitant prices! But there is also the option of seeing a performance for merely €2 in the standing room only category.
Furthermore, performances are regularly broadcast on public television. Thanks to “Opera live in the Square”, opera fans can also catch live broadcasts at Herbert von Karajan Square in April, May, June and September. These screenings are al fresco, free to attend, and don’t have a dress code.
The “Young State Opera” is an initiative that makes opera and ballet accessible for kids and teenagers. Concerts, operas and ballet performances tailored to children, as well as commissioned work are shown on the main stage and the Agrana studio stage. Classroom initiatives let young people see behind the curtains of productions — quite literally by letting them attend not just performances but also rehearsals. There’s also a live streaming programme for schools called “Vienna State Opera live@school”.
The Vienna Opera Ball — A ball with a long tradition
Today, the Vienna Opera Ball at the Vienna State Opera is a highlight of the carnival season. However, when the ball first started out, it had to positively fight for its place at the opera house!
At the time of the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, Viennese society was embracing ball tradition. But Emperor Franz Joseph wasn’t yet convinced and refused to let any formal dance happen at “his theatre”, so the first “opera ball” in 1869 had to take place somewhere else. Finally, in 1877, the emperor gave his blessing and the Vienna State Opera opened its doors for the ball.
The demise of the empire in 1918 didn’t keep the young republic from organising balls for long. In January 1921 the first “Opera Redoute” of the Republic of Austria took place at the opera house; since 1935 the ball has been called “Vienna Opera Ball”.
Today, the Vienna Opera Ball is an institution sought out by high-profile guests from Austria and elsewhere. And to be a part of the formal opening dance is a great honour for national and international debutantes.
More than 5,000 visitors are expected at this year’s event — and almost 1.5 million people will likely follow the spectacle from their television screens at home.
Whether you’re heading to the Vienna Opera Ball or to a regular performance at the Vienna State Opera — the Grand Ferdinand at Schubertring is just a stone’s throw away.