The Volksoper Wien (which translates to Vienna People’s Opera) has experienced quite a bit of back and forth in its more than 100 years of existence. It’s been renamed numerous times and has, in turn, functioned as a theatre, an opera house and even as a cinema. But the Volksoper’s true love has always been the operetta, a much-undervalued genre of musical theatre.
The hard beginnings of the Vienna People’s Opera
Volksoper Wien was founded in 1898 with the name “Kaiserjubiläums-Stadttheater” in honour of the emperor’s 50-year jubilee. Unfortunately, emperor Franz Joseph I. didn’t attend the opening, as he was still grieving for his murdered wife Sisi. It’s almost as if the theatre didn’t quite start off on the right foot.
Originally, the new theatre was meant as a place for spoken theatre. But then Rainer Simons, who became the theatre’s director in 1903, started adding “opera plays” to the repertoire, and the public liked it. The theatre started using the name “Volksoper” in 1908 and saw premieres like Puccini’s “Tosca” (1907) and Richard Strauss’ “Salome” (1910).
Establishing an identity through the years
During inflation, the Vienna People’s Opera began to struggle financially. After various attempts at saving it, the opera was reopened in 1929 under a new name: The “New Vienna Theatre”. Part of the repertoire were again “easy” operettas.
In the course of the second world war, the opera house was once again renamed multiple times. Towards the end of the war, it was even used as Vienna’s second largest cinema for a few months. After the war and up until 1955 the Vienna People’s Opera famously became the temporary home for the Vienna State Opera.
In 1955 Volksoper Wien finally became an independent theatre again, putting on operas, operettas and musicals. However, it still took a while though until the Volksoper could establish itself as the leading operetta house of the world.
The world’s premiere house for operettas
Volksoper Wien definitely hasn’t had an easy time finding its identity. The frequent renamings, strategic changes, misappropriations and changes in the directorate have certainly hampered its growth. And then there’s the constant comparison to the famous Vienna State Opera.
Nonetheless, the Vienna People’s Opera has managed to establish itself not just as Vienna’s second biggest opera house, but as the world’s leading house for operettas.
This position likely wouldn’t be possible if it hadn’t been for Robert Meyer. The well-known actor, held in high regard by the Austrian public, took over as the People Opera’s director in 2007 and immediately began to work on reform.
Meyer put an emphasis on raising the value of the operetta and within his first year, he managed to win back the public and raise revenues. It certainly helps that occasionally, Robert Meyer takes the stage himself to take part in one of the plays.
A varied programme for all ages
Every season, the People’s Opera puts on about 300 performances of around 35 different productions. Of course, the main genre remains the operetta, but the repertoire includes operas, musicals and ballet performances as well, and even cabaret performances and parodies.
The variety of the repertoire is almost unparalleled. You could easily go to see Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute” one day and the musical “The Sound of Music” the next. And on new year’s eve and new year’s day, the traditional performance — in front of an often raucous audience — is that of Strauss’ operetta “Die Fledermaus”.
The People’s Opera offers various subscription models and “cycles”, including one with a discount for families. There’s also a subscription for young people under 27 and a variety of offers for kids. From discounted tickets to kid-friendly performances like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Hansel and Gretel“. From children’s workshops to interactive performances.
Kids can even join the Volksoper children’s choir and end up performing on the very stage they have been watching others perform on. There’s a varied programme for schools as well, where they can attend rehearsals and have a look backstage.
Both tourists and Viennese locals have caught on that Vienna has quality musical theatre to offer aside from the grand Vienna State Opera. The Volksoper Wien keeps proving that again and again.