Opera for All in Vienna
This ‘open to all’ attitude makes opera accessible – and enjoyable
Until February 2012, going to the opera seemed about as likely to me as going to the football. While a lover of both classical music and sport, these two practices seemed to have taken things just that little bit too far for my easily contorted comfort zones. Classical music, I believed, was no place for singing and running was hindered with the introduction of a ball. So with this mantra I carried on through life avoiding contact with both phenomenons. Until my brother got invited to play at Wembley and I boarded a plane to Vienna.
Reading through my guidebook on the plane it became clear that music was, and still is, a huge part of Vienna’s culture and heritage. Attending the Coffee House Owners’ Ball on my first night in the city gave me all the proof I needed that music and dance is celebrated with jubilance here – and not restricted to the elite, as my preconceptions would have me believe.
My preconceptions would also take a battering as I later discovered that I wouldn’t need to auction off my flight ticket home to pay for my opera ticket the following day – indeed, I could go for a mere €3… less than the price of a pint of beer. With the opportunity to see a performance in Vienna’s iconic State Opera House at such a ridiculously low price the decision was made.
Vienna’s Neo-Renaissance State Opera House was constructed in the late 19th century and opened to the public in 1869, to a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. During World War II the building was hit by bombs and narrowly missed total devastation – opening again in 1955. Today Vienna's Opera House has worldwide acclaim and is noted as one of the busiest opera houses in the world. Indeed, it averages around 200 performances a year and as such employs over 1,000 people.
It therefore, goes without saying that tickets for operas in the Staatsoper can sell for hundreds of euros and normally need to be booked in advance. The €3 tickets are released 80 minutes before the performance starts and come with one catch – you have to stand. Needless to say, for the price charged this doesn’t seem to bother anybody and as I turned up to queue for my admittance, the line of people continued to grow. Only one ticket per person is allowed (to prevent big groups from cleaning out with a single individual) and in order to ensure tickets don’t run out before you hit the front you will need to get there up to 40 minutes before the desk opens.
Once through, with your ticket in hand, the ushers pass you along a corridor and into the main entrance hall of the opera house. This main hallway is truly magnificent and cameras get a work-out as you make your way across to the staircase and up to the theatre doors. Bear in mind at this point you are super early, so as you pass through the doors you’re met with a sea of empty chairs and for the thrifty - a series of steps with padded rails facing them. The idea is that you tie something to the rail in front of the patch of ground upon which you wish to stand, and then you can mill around until the performance starts.
I chose to sit on my step and watch as the auditorium filled below me. As we sat perched in jeans and casual tops those taking their seats below were clearly a lot more formal, with long dresses, suits and even the odd tux making an appearance. Sat below I would have felt wildly out of place, however, from up here, absorbed in the casual attitude (in both attire and attendance) I felt relaxed.
At 7:30 sharp the conductor made an appearance in the orchestra pit below and the first few notes of ‘The Barber of Seville’ hit my ears. The theatre was undeniably grand yet the performance felt intimate. The stage was large enough to impress with its country house set, yet small enough to keep it about the music and not fancy effects. Admittedly, for the first 20 minutes or so goings on pretty much eluded me, but once I realised translations were available on small screens provided (and the lady in front of me happened to have hers in English) a whole new world was opened. There was indeed a story to follow and once you’ve got this under your fingertips you get sucked in as if you were watching a play or film at the cinema. Before I knew it 90 minutes has elapsed and beyond shifting my weight a few times I’d been totally transfixed.
Trailing out into the grand rooms within which opera-goers were able to unwind during the interval it hit me more than ever just how much value for money these standing tickets provide. For less than the price of a slice of cake in a coffee shop you not only get over 2 hours’ worth of world-class opera but also the chance to take in Vienna’s iconic opera house - all without having to book months in advance. The availability of tickets such as this means there really is no excuse not to go to the opera in Vienna. Whether you’re a student, tourist or a local with a penchant for spontaneity (or tight budgets) this ‘open to all’ attitude makes opera accessible – and enjoyable.
So with that I left the Staatsoper feeling jubilant. Indeed, while I’m not going to lie and pretend I’m about to be taking in an opera every weekend, should the occasion arise again I will be grabbing it firmly with both hands. Which, incidentally, is more than I can say for the goalkeeper at a certain football match a Wembley…