Column: Vienna’s magnificent Opera House

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The Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) in Vienna, Austria, is one of the world’s leading opera houses. It was once so poorly regarded that neither of its designers survived its construction.

Opera has been important in Vienna since the early 1700s, when it was aggressively promoted by Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I, who also was an accomplished composer. Operas were initially performed in Heinrichshorf, a magnificent private residence in the center of Vienna. By the middle of the 19th century, the scale of popular operas had outgrown the capacity of Heinrichshorf. In 1857, Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I authorized using public funds to build a new opera house near the existing one along the Ringstraße (Ring Road). A competition for the design of the new opera house required that the entrants identify a slogan capturing the essence of their design. The competition was won by architect August Sicard von Sicardsburg and interior decorator Eduard van der Nüll, whose slogan was “Fais ce que dois, advient que pourra” (essentially, “Do your best, no matter what happens”). The foundation stone for the new opera house was laid in 1863.

  Unfortunately, the building, lacking the grandeur of Heinrichshorf, was panned even before it was completed. The criticism increased when the Ringstraße in front of the building was raised more than three feet, leading people to call the unfinished structure “the sunken box.” Devastated by the harsh reception, Van der Null committed suicide and Sicardsburg died of a heart attack before the building opened on May 25, 1869, with a lavish production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” attended by Emperor Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, the beloved “Sisi.”

Each year, Wiener Staatsoper stages more than 300 performances of more than 60 different operas and ballets. It also is open for guided tours in German, English and Spanish.




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