Edifice The imposing Vienna State Opera is a monument to artistry. Ironically, the celebrated venue in the past was an object of derision and a cause for tragedy. Aruna Chandaraju

Ihurry up the large marble staircase of the Vienna State Opera building that sweeps up from the main entrance to the first floor eager to make time for a pre-performance look at the world-famous artistic venue. The magnificent frescoes in the foyer catch my attention and I pause for a few moments. There are elegant thematic murals featuring musical instruments atop many doors and beautiful paintings in halls flanking the side-entrances. However, with people pouring in, I decide a better time for a closer look will be the morning tour of the place lined up for later––there are regular tours for tourists during the day.

The well-known opera buffa, ‘The Barber of Seville,’ begins with the overture to ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’ by the Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper or orchestra of the Opera House. This popular comedy receives much applause in the end. Enhancing the whole experience for viewers, is the superbly equipped stage and the advanced acoustics - the music and the dialogue of every actor-singer is carried clearly to every corner of the auditorium. And that is very impressive considering there are 1,709 seats and standing room for 567, besides four wheelchair-users.

The shows generally draw a full house. After all, the Vienna State Opera is regarded as one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world. It is also the one with the widest repertoire.

On the agenda

During the season (September to June), it offers over 300 performances of 60 different operas and ballets. The 2012-13 season will see more than 350 shows including five opera premieres, I am told. Some of the world’s greatest artists have performed on this stage.

Tickets are highly sought-after. The price for seats close to the stage may seem exorbitant by Indian standards, but the moderately priced back-row seats and standing-room tickets that go at the last minute for as little as two to four euros, and the live telecast of important programmes on large screens outside the venue, using multi-perspective cinematography, make presentations accessible to everyone.

Once a year, however, it attracts the tag of ‘elitist’ when it turns into the venue for the internationally renowned Vienna Opera Ball attended mostly by the rich and the famous.

There is a large workforce of nearly one thousand staff including the management and a vast pool of talent drawn from across countries, which keeps it at the important position it enjoys among the world’s opera houses.

More impressive figures are given to us –– it has a regular ensemble of singers (about 45 soloists), the ballet ensemble (the Wiener Staatsballett or Vienna National Ballet with about 80 of its dancers in the Vienna State Opera), the orchestra, the choir and the stage orchestra. All this is constantly supplemented by numerous international guest singers, dancers and conductors. Just like many artistic monuments, the opera house appears different –– though equally impressive –– by light of day. Filling us in on the history, the guide tells us that originally it was called Wiener Hofoper and now it is the Wiener Staatsoper. Incidentally, Wiener Staatsoper is the official (German) name, and the English translation is Vienna State Opera.

The fabulous frescoes in the foyer are nearly 150 years old and the work of famous artists.

The place has seen a long list of notable directors such as Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, and over the years many masterpieces have had their world premieres here.

Busts of composers

Besides, you can see marble busts of the great composers of Europe including Ludwig Van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, Gioachino Rossini, Heinrich Marschner, Gaspare Spontini, Louis Spohr, Franz Schubert, Christoph Willibald Gluck and Joseph Haydn.

Ironically, this celebrated cultural venue and star tourist attraction was not very popular when nearing completion. Being lower than street level, it was derided as a “sunken treasure-chest” and disparagingly compared to a military-disaster, and the-then emperor shared the opinion. The first architect committed suicide and the second suffered a fatal heart attack, so neither was alive for the completion and opening in 1869.

Nearly destroyed by a bombing raid in World War 2, wherein much of the building was ruined and flames consumed large numbers of costumes and props, it was subsequently restored, redesigned and reopened in 1955.

The Vienna State Opera has close links with the celebrated Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, since their members are recruited from the orchestra of the Vienna State Opera.

It is also a very child-friendly institution. It hosts many children’s productions, has the Opera School for Children from where the children’s choir draws its talent for several performances, and also has the Ballet School for children.

During September-June, over 300 performances of 60 different operas and ballets are held.