A Night at the Vienna Opera
I’m a romantic, though I try my best to hide it. Occasionally, I can’t help my own inclinations — like the time I started bawling so uncontrollably during the first 10 minutes of Life of Pi that I had to excuse myself from the theater.
The trope of the rich man taking the ingenue to the opera to assess her potential plays out over and over again in film, television, and books; especially if you are at all inclined to romantic plotlines. For instance, it accounts for half of the fantasy of Julia Robert’s Pretty Woman character. When the young Los Angeles prostitute with unusually excellent dental hygiene dabs discreetly — but not entirely unnoticeably — at the corner of her eyes, she passes the test.
In real life, appreciation of the opera as a stand-in for the rich aesthete is passé. At least, from what I can tell of the landmark’s audience makeup. Attendees at Wiener Staatsoper or, in English, Vienna’s State Opera House, are mostly centenarians and unappreciative tourists who take out their selfie sticks at intermission — if they don’t leave early first.
I would have needed a notebook and a dedicated assistant to properly count the number of “candid” Instagram photos. Oh, here I am smiling at the renaissance revival interior. Here I am looking teary-eyed at the blood-stained curtain. Now, I’m holding hands with a cupid statue.
It’s people-watching gold.
However, in a way I sympathize. If you’ve never attended a performance before it can be overwhelming, even intimidating. Opera is not especially accessible. The tickets are extravagant, the singing is in a foreign language, and it seems a relic of a past hundreds of years gone. The posh-ness is a large part of the value. But, for the half of my personality that is committed to the idea of beauty and art being necessary for a fulfilled life, never having been was a secret shame. So, I did the research, cleared my one free evening in Vienna, and couldn’t wait for my first opera.
I arrived at the standing tickets queue a dutiful two hours before the performance’s scheduled start. Before I could even reach the line, a smartly dressed man approached me and asked if I wanted to buy one of the few remaining single orchestra seats.
But I was committed to the standing ticket experience: waiting outside with a book, classic Viennese street food, and then the mad dash to wrap my scarf around the best and centermost balcony spot — all at a very affordable 4 Euros no less.
I politely declined and moved to the back of the line where there were already close to forty people, but the man followed me. He introduced himself and asked where I was from.
“American girl?” He sighed, “For you I’ll give you a good price. 40 Euros.”
“No thank you.” I was firm.
A man, dragging a child who was similarly firm about NOT wanting to attend the opera, approached my ticket scalper and began to expertly haggle.
One marriage proposal and premature meet-the-parents dinner invitation later, I was in! Past my overly-eager Austrian courter and into the side entrance of one of the most stunning opera venues in the world. Aside from an uncomfortable moment where a woman nearly triggered a stampede in her mad dash for the standing area, the procedure was a breeze. I snagged a roomy, central aisle spot, wrapped my purple scarf around the banister to mark my place and then paused to properly appreciate my surroundings.
With the standing queue experience came the opportunity to wander around the State Opera House well in advance of its higher-paying guests. Desperate to dissect that image of exclusivity, I explored every frescoed floor and unoccupied private box seat I could find. Wandering the nearly-empty opera house made it easy to reflect on its hundreds of years of history. The building had witnessed the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth, the dark period of Nazi occupation, and the subsequent post-War reconstruction.
The arrival of the masses signaled the return to my seat (err, I mean standing spot). I was surprised to find individual electronic touch screens that could be adjusted in eyeline with the stage that contained subtitle selections and a performance synopsis.
The bloody stage curtain turned out to be a pretty good harbinger of the story to come. Unbeknownst to me, I was in for one of the saddest operas ever composed. Based on a Johann Wolfgang von Goethe novel of the same name, Werther details impossible love, unfulfilled marriage, and (spoiler alert!) a Christmas Eve suicide.
Although the opera was in French, I struggled to understand the operatic singing. The English subtitles helped me with some minor pieces of character dialogue but I wouldn’t have needed the screen to follow the narrative. It was so easy to get swept up in the emotion of the performers. The opening chords previewed the tragedy of the lovers’ fate, the staging hammered in the resonance, and the chorus swept me along a cathartic journey that lingered for days. Plus, the gestural acting was an artform all on its own.
I might have been dabbing my own eyes…
Music is a cultural universal. We need it as a way to tell stories and express emotion. As Elizabeth Gilbert wryly points out in the opening of her Ted Talk on creativity human beings have been making superfluous pretty things well before we figured out how to regularly feed ourselves.
The saying goes that responses to opera are extremely dramatic, you either love it or hate it. Certainly, if you feel strongly that opera isn’t for you, I won’t press the point. But I believe that opera can be for anyone. Whether you are a cynic or a romantic, a classical music enthusiast or EDM raver — there is something to connect with. It makes you hear and see the world differently.
Skip the binoculars, bring tissues.