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28.12.03

Opera and the Way Things Should Be

The following is just to provide some perspective about opera in the United States. Jérôme Dupuis and Axel Gyldén have published an article (Opéra de Vienne: L'or du Ring, December 25) in L'Express about the institution of the Wiener Staatsoper and its place in the hearts of the Viennese. The list of music directors at the Vienna State Opera, built by Emperor Franz Josef in 1869, includes Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Karl Böhm, and Herbert von Karajan. According to the authors, the Vienna Opera is the only company in the world that changes its program every day, selecting from an overall repertory of 120 operas, of which about 50 are performed each year.

How is this extraordinary number of performances possible? The backdrops consist of gigantic painted scenes lifted into place on hydraulic jacks, which are then able to sink back to a depth of 15 meters (49 feet), for whatever opera will be performed that evening. Trucks can be lifted by means of a gigantic hydraulic elevator to the level of the stage to take away or deposit other decoration pieces or props, which requires about 800 truckloads per month. Von Karajan, when he was director in Vienna, had his chauffeured car lifted from the parking lot on this elevator, allowing him to appear at the conductor's podium with a minimum of effort a couple minutes before curtain. The costume department is the largest in Europe and has its immense offices just across the street, which can be accessed by a tunnel from beneath the Opera. About 100 employees can work at sewing machines and then hand-deliver repaired costume pieces to singers before they go on stage.

Of course, this sort of enterprise would not be possible without a supportive public. The Vienna Opera receives some 2,000 audience members for each performance, of which about one-fourth are estimated to be foreign tourists. Most of the Viennese regulars are used to going to the Opera several times each month, and many of them have a long memory of many years of operatic performances. The present director, Ion Holender, a refugee from Ceausescu's Romania, was appointed in 1992 and has approval to remain until 2010, which will be the longest tenure of any director at the Vienna State Opera. Under his leadership, the Opera has been financially sound and mostly scandal-free.

One thing I admire about the attitude of the Vienna Opera is its range of seat prices. Some 1,700 seats are available, ranging from 40 to 178 euros ($49 to $221), which is roughly equal to the distribution of seats for the Washington Opera ($41 to $260) or the Metropolitan Opera ($25 to $250). However, an additional 567 Stehplätze (standing room places) are sold on the night of each performance, one hour before curtain, for 2 euros ($2.48) for a normal place or 3.50 euros ($4.35) for a place underneath the imperial box with an incredible view: "In other words, for the price of a coffee, you can witness one of the most sophisticated spectacles on the planet." After all, if opera is too expensive, it becomes an elitist entertainment, which it does not have to be. There should be high-end tickets for exclusive seats for those who value them, but an average person should be able to hear a good opera more than once a year and without mortgaging the house. The stories of waiting for standing room places are charming:

"Twenty years ago, I waited in line all night long, at -20° C (-4° F), to get a standing room place for Boris Godonov," recalls Peter Blaha, Chief Dramaturge and Associate Director of the Vienna State Opera. Today, the system, which many students and tourists take advantage of, has been simplified: the sale of standing room places opens one hour before the start of the show. And, as we are in a civilized country, rather than waiting in line for hours, you can leave a little slip of paper in front of the sales window, on which you have written "Two places for Falstaff," and come back just before the show. Below the Opera's lateral arcades, therefore, you can see in the late afternoon a sort of "waiting line" made up of papers on the ground, protected from the wind by little rocks. This system does much to spread opera through all levels of Viennese society, just like the performances of the "childrens' opera," a pedagogical initiative that prepares thousands of elementary school students to become fans of lyric spectacle.
The Vienna State Opera draws by itself 150,000 tourists with strong buying power each year. It employs 1,200 people and creates income indirectly, as a study established a few years ago, for hotels, restaurants, and taxi companies, to the tune of some 70,000 euros ($86,940) per year.

Keep in mind that the population of the city of Vienna is about 1.5 million people. In Paris there are three major opera houses for a little over 2 million people. It is true that the city of Washington, D.C., has a dwindling population, now about 570,000 people, but with the bloated suburbs taken into account, the entire metropolitan area has a population of between 3 and 4 million people. (These figures are taken from Thomas Brinkhoff's very useful site called City Population.) Why don't we have something like the Vienna State Opera here?

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