Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: If a Building Could Speak, this One Would Sing: The Vienna State Opera House

Vienna State Opera House
Vienna State Opera House

We mark the opening on May 25, 1869 – 151 years ago today – of the Vienna Court Opera (or Wiener Hofoper), which has been known since 1921 as the Vienna State Opera (or Wiener Staatsoper). The opening was a gala event: a performance of Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni attended by, among many others, Emperor Franz Josef I and his bride, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria (know to her intimates as Sisi). 

Last week’s Music History Monday post noted the deaths of both the Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz and the Bohemian-born composer Gustav Mahler. In the course of that post, we observed that between 1897 and 1907 Mahler was Director and Principal Conductor of what was, and arguably still is, the most prestigious opera house in the world: the Vienna Court/State Opera. 

(Along with Mahler, the Vienna Court/State Opera has had some pretty impressive Directors over the years, including Felix Weingartner [who served for 4 years], Richard Strauss [5 years], Bruno Walter [2 years], Karl Böhm [4 years], Herbert von Karajan [8 years], Lorin Maazel [2 years], Claudio Abbado [5 years], and Seiji Ozawa [8 years]. 

If a building can be said to tell the story of modern Vienna, then that building is its opera house.

Emperor Franz Josef I circa 1860
Emperor Franz Josef I (1830-1916), Emperor of Austria; King of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia; and Monarch of the remaining states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, circa 1860

It’s a story that begins in December of 1857. That’s when the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I (who lived from 1830-1916 and reigned from 1848-1916) issued a lengthy decree titled “The Expansion of the City of Vienna” that began with the words Es ist Meine Wille, “it is my command.” What the emperor was commanding was one of the most ambitious and expensive urban renewal projects in history, taken as widely as we please! 

Since the thirteenth century, the city of Vienna had been surrounded by a defensive wall. 

(An irresistible sidebar; bear with me! That original wall was funded by a ransom payment paid by England for the release of King Richard I of England – 1157-1199 – a.k.a. Richard the Lion Heart. Returning from the Third Crusade, Richard’s ship was wrecked near the city of Aquileia, in present-day Northeastern Italy. Forced to travel overland across central Europe, Richard was arrested near Vienna in December of 1192 by Leopold V, the Duke of Austria, who Richard had personally insulted during the Crusade and who additionally accused Richard of arranging the murder of his cousin, Conrad of Montferrat. In March of 1193, Richard was handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who demanded a veritable “king’s ransom” of 100,000 silver pieces for his release. The money was raised by taxing the living daylights out of the English people and churches. The ransom was paid and Richard was released on February 4, 1194. The Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI put those 100,000 silver pieces to immediate use, and thus Vienna got its wall.)

 Back to Emperor Franz Josef I’s decree titled “The Expansion of the City of Vienna”. 

City plan of Vienna in 1858 before construction of the Ringstrasse
City plan of Vienna in 1858 before construction of the Ringstrasse, depicting the city walls and glacis surrounding the inner stadt, or “inner city”

I repeat: since the thirteenth century, the city of Vienna had been surrounded by a defensive wall. That wall was reinforced in response to the big event of 1529, which is when the Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to the city. This reinforced wall was additionally surrounded by a 500-meter (1640 feet) glacis, a huge, empty, defensive donut around the city wall where buildings and vegetation were verboten. By the nineteenth century, these defensive works were not just obsolete but they had become a tremendous impediment to the growth of the city. 

And so the Emperor decreed that the wall should come a’tumblin’ down; that a magnificent boulevard (the Ringstrasse, or “Ring Road”) be constructed in place of the wall, a boulevard to be lined with mansions and the grand, public buildings of the Empire. Additionally, the Emperor commanded that the glacis be filled in with a variety of live/work neighborhoods (including low-cost, public housing) and public parks. (Regarding all of those lovelyViennese parks, the mayor of Vienna – Kajetan Felder [who lived from 1814-1894 and was mayor from 1868 to 1878] – famously stated that “parks are the lungs of a metropolis.”)

The Emperor’s construction project was, by every measure, a gigantic undertaking, and the Viennese – bless them – did it right. It was understood from the get-go that the sort of population increase the new construction would bring to Vienna demanded an entirely new infrastructure for the city. With remarkable speed a modern infrastructure was indeed created: the Danube River was properly channeled to protect the city from flooding. Modern sewers were installed and an adequate water supply insured. A public health system was put in place that almost immediately eliminated the sorts of epidemics that had plagued Vienna for centuries. In 1873, the city opened its first public hospital.

And then the big architectural decisions had to be made. What should the monumental governmental buildings on the Ringstrasse look like, and what should they say.

Architecture shapes and controls space, and the nature and design of public architecture plays not just an aesthetic role but a propagandistic one as well. 

Nowhere is this more true than in a capital city, where the power and priorities of the state are projected and defined through its architecture. The construction of the Ring Road – to be lined with the great public buildings of the Empire – gave the Austrian government an almost unique opportunity to virtually reinvent its image for both the people of the Empire and the world at large. Carl Schorske, in his superb book Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture (Knopf, 1980), puts it this way:

“Not utility but cultural self-projection dominated the Ringstrasse [the “Ring Road”]. The term most commonly used to describe the great program of the sixties [1860s] was not ‘renovation’ or ‘redevelopment’, but ‘beautification of the city’s image’. The great forum built along Vienna’s Ringstrasse, with its monuments and its dwellings, gives us an iconographic index to the mind of ascendant Austrian liberalism.”

The Austrian Parliament Building and Volksgarten
The Austrian Parliament Building and Volksgarten with a section of the tree-covered Ringstrasse between them

Eventually, the Ringstrasse – which has been called the “Lord of the Ring Roads” and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site – became home to (among many other buildings), the Academy of Fine Arts, the Museum of Applied Arts, the Palace of Justice (the seat of the Supreme Court of Austria), the Austrian Parliament Building (constructed, like the United States Capitol Building, in a neo-classic style in order to evoke the democracy of ancient Athens), the Vienna Town Hall, the Burgtheater, the University of Vienna (constructed in a neo-Renaissance style in order to evoke the explosion of secular rationalism that marked the Renaissance), the Vienna Stock Exchange, and the Austrian Postal Savings Bank. 

In a telling indication of Vienna’s priorities, the first of the great municipal buildings to open on the Ringstrasse was, in fact, none-of-the-above. Rather, it was the spanking new Vienna Court Opera House.

The Kärntnertor Theater
The Kärntnertor Theater with the Kärntnertor (Corinthian Gate) in the city wall to the right

The site of the building was well chosen: right next to what had been the former Kärntnertor (Corinthian Gate) entrance to the city and therefore adjacent to the site of the Kärntnertor Theater where, among many other works, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 received its premiere on May 7, 1824. (Having been replaced by the new opera house, the Kärntnertor Theater was – tragically, I think – demolished in 1870, replaced by an apartment building that today houses the Hotel Sacher of “Sacher-Torte” fame.)

The architects chosen to design the new opera house were August Sicard von Sicardsburg (1813-1868) and Eduard van der Nüll (1812-1868). Work on the opera house began in 1861; the cornerstone was laid on May 20, 1863; construction was completed in the spring of 1869.

Built in a neo-Renaissance style using a wide variety of stone and marble, the opera house radiates a sense of the “grand”. (Having said that, we’d note that the actual auditorium is not particularly large; not including standing room, or Stehplatz, the Vienna Court/State Opera seats 1709 patrons. By comparison, La Scala in Milan seats 2030; the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires 2487, the Metropolitan opera in New York 3800, and the Sydney Opera House – the largest in the world – seats 5738 patrons, a number more appropriate for a Wrestle-Mania show than an opera.)

(The Vienna State Opera may not be the biggest opera house in the world, but it is the busiest. Performances take place today roughly 300 days a year, during which approximately 70 different works are performed annually.)

The construction site in 1863
The construction site in 1863

Speaking generally but not inaccurately, the Viennese are famous for their cynicism and sarcasm; their ability to laugh in the face of disaster is legendary. Call it survival, call it denial, whatever; the old Viennese joke says: “The situation is desperate but not serious.” Well, speaking generally but not inaccurately, the Viennese were not happy with their new opera house as its construction advanced. Some felt that it wasn’t “grand” enough. Some called it “a sunken treasure chest” because after its construction began, the Ringstrasse itself was raised by one meter, forcing patrons to actually step down rather than up towards the opera house; it was said that Emperor Franz Josef himself complained that the steps at the entrance were too shallow. The press began to refer to the new opera house as “the ‘Königgrätz’ of architecture” a reference to an Austrian military disaster at the Battle of Königgrätz on July 3, 1866.

It’s a fact: sticks and stones may break our bones but words can break our hearts, and all the nastiness and resultant agita did indeed break the hearts of the architects August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll. Van der Nüll was the first one to crack; he hanged himself on April 4, 1868. His lifelong friend von Sicardsburg followed him to the grave 78 days later, on June 11, 1868. Neither van der Nüll nor von Sicardsburg lived to see their opera house open on May 25, 1869, and neither did they live to see their creation vindicated and celebrated as one of the greatest opera houses in the world.

However, we must all be grateful that neither van der Nüll nor von Sicardsburg lived to see what happened on March 12, 1945, when five bombs from an American bomber fell on the opera house during a raid less than two months before the end of the European phase of World War Two. The building burned for two days. Fortunately, the front of the opera house, containing the building’s façade and entrance, foyer, main staircase and tearoom had been walled off as a precaution and were unharmed. Unfortunately, the remainder of the building, including the auditorium, the stage, and the huge backstage and backstage storage areas (which held the props for upwards of 120 operas and roughly 150,000 costumes) was a total loss; all that remained were the exterior walls. 

The burned and boarded up Vienna State Opera in 1945
The burned and boarded up Vienna State Opera in 1945

The debate as to whether the building should be entirely demolished and rebuilt on its former site or somewhere new was settled with remarkable speed. On May 24, 1945 – just 16 days after the war ended – the Austrian Secretary of State for Public Works, Julius Raab, announced that reconstruction of the Vienna State Opera would begin immediately, preserving the surviving façade, entrance, foyer, main staircase, tearoom, and shell, and with the remaining interior of the house to be rebuilt in a contemporary, mid-twentieth century style. 

The Vienna State Opera reopened on November 5, 1955, when Karl Böhm conducted a triumphant performance of Beethoven’s one-and-only opera, Fidelio. The timing of the performance was doubly auspicious, as Austria had regained full independence as a sovereign, nation just 5½ months before, on May 15, 1955, and celebrated its first “independence day” on October 26, 1955 – 10 days before the opera reopened – when the last occupying troops left and Austria declared its “permanent neutrality” by an act of parliament. That the reopening of the Vienna State Opera thus coincided with the rebirth of the Austrian nation was lost on nobody.

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