If you can’t join ‘em, poke fun of ‘em, right?
Sure, I’ve heard of Pavarotti (isn’t he dead?), and I’m a really big fan of Andre Bocelli (isn’t he blind?). But alas, I’ve never ever had the pleasure (I’ve heard opera is wonderful, but I might need some convincing) of even stepping into an opera house, much less been privy to the drama up close and personal – the tragedy, the romance, the comedy. My life is an opera, though! I’ve raised two girls.
Well, that last statement about never ever stepping foot in an opera house (the word opera means work or labor in Italian) is actually no longer true. Jimmy and I had the chance last fall to tour the mother of all opera houses, the Wiener Staatsoper (forthwith I am going to work on my German, Italian, French and Russian simultaneously in preparation for my first real opera experience), the Vienna State Opera House. Am I biting off more than I can chew with the German, Italian, French and Russian thing? Nicht/Non/Pas/Nyet!
I heard you don’t really need to know all the words to get the gist of opera anyway. When Carmen sings about the vicissitudes of love in the famous aria L’amour est un oiseau rebelle, also known as Habanera, the aria follows the same ups and downs most of us have experienced when it comes to love. No translation needed for the towering emotion behind that song.
Besides, my exposure to opera may not be as dismal as I thought. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s a closer look at the Vienna State Opera, with a few pictures to feed my addiction and your curiosity.
1. Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera)
Seven may be considered a lucky number in some circles, but the seven years it took to build the Vienna Court Opera along Vienna’s famous circle road, the Ringstrasse, proved unlucky for architects August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Null; both did not live to see the opening of their famed Neo-Renaissance style building.
When public perception of the first public building constructed along Vienna’s newly planned Ringstrasse, the Vienna Court Opera, was likened to “a sunken treasure chest” (during construction of the Vienna Court Opera, the height of the Ringstrasse directly in front of where the Vienna Court Opera was being constructed was raised by a meter), Eduard van der Null’s opera house was nicknamed the “Koniggartz of architecture.” The analogous reference to a famed military disaster in 1866, the Battle of Koniggartz, was too much for Eduard van der Null. He hanged himself on April 4, 1868. Ten weeks later, August Sicard von Sicardsburg suffered a fatal heart attack. I hate when that happens!
2. The Grand Entrance
Mahler is credited with introducing the practice of dimming the lighting in the theatre during performances, which ultimately restricted the heretofore usual conversations and movements by audience members throughout the operas. While his reform was not appreciated by the audience, it was adopted by those conductors at the State Opera that followed.
Late in his life, Gustav was briefly director of the New York Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic (1908-1911).
The bronze bust of the composer Gustav Mahler, who was the director of the Vienna Court Opera for 10 years from 1897 to 1907, was created by French sculptor Auguste Rodin in 1909. Mahler’s bust sits prominently in the Schwind Foyer, along with other busts of “conducting directors” who have all worked at the Vienna State Opera House.
The State Opera's current musical director is Franz Welser-Möst. He is also musical director for the Cleveland Orchestra. I guess he likes duets.
4. The Schwind Foyer
Moritz von Schwind obviously put his heart and soul into the 16 oil paintings of scenes from famous operas, including Beethoven’s Fidelio and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville displayed in this elegant room. A bust of the composer sits beneath each illustration. I hope he got a life-time membership to the opera for his efforts. It’s the least Vienna could do for Moritz, don’t you think?
5. The Auditorium
The hall’s original seating capacity of 2,881 had to be reduced during renovations following a fire during World War II; and while the auditorium’s original red and gilt decoration was retained, the initial opulence and excessive splendor gave way to a more practical interior. Goudy is never a good look, especially for the opera, unless of course you’re performing onstage.
The waiting list for weekday concert subscriptions to the VPO is six years, thirteen years for weekend subscriptions. Sheesh, I could croak while waiting for a ticket. How tragic. Need I reiterate, my life is an opera (okay, maybe a soap opera).
As of 2013, the VPO has six female members, something the good old boys at VPO still aren’t all that happy about. The VPO does not accept anyone over 35 for membership and members must retire at 65. Can't have them falling asleep during half notes or quarter notes.
The National Bank of Austria currently loans four violins made by Antonio Stradivari to the VPO. All string section instruments belong to the orchestra and not individual musicians, as is typically the case in most orchestras.
7. Opera Goes Pop Culture
I’ve not seen The Marriage of Figaro opera (yet), but ever since Andy Dufrese (Tim Robbins) of Shawshank Redemption fame locked himself inside the warden’s office and played Canzonneta sull’aria over the loudspeaker to the entire prison, I’ve been a fan of Mozart’s opera buffa (comic opera). You can hear that beautiful duet via this YouTube link.
And what baby boomer doesn't remember the scene from the 1968 movie Apocalypse Now, when U.S. troops attacked a Vietnamese beach. It is sadly riveting because of the opera music, Ride of the Walkures, from Richard Wagner’s opera, Die Walkure. Robert Duval’s character, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, plays Wagner’s music through the helicopter’s speakers to frighten away the Vietnamese on the ground below. He relates, “I use Wagner; it scares the hell out of the slopes. My boys love it.” I can still see the helicopters in flight formation; the bigotry and unjustified murder take center stage along with Wagner's music as the sounds of machine guns and bombs fade away. Listen to Die Walkure via this link.
Michael Douglas did a great job as a young stockbroker involved in insider trading in Wall Street, the movie depicting the heights of greed and excess in the 80’s. There’s no better backdrop for a self-centered, money-hungry stockbroker dining out with his materialistic girlfriend than the music Questa O Quella from the opera Rigoletto. Rigoletto is all about the self-centered playboy Duke who casually seduces women and abandons them. I've provided another link for your listening pleasure.
Another classic from the 60's, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey blew me away as the disembodied voices of Ligeti’s Requiem heralded the arrival of the symbolic black monolith followed by the ominous fanfare of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra signaling evolution. It's sad to say, but I think my first exposure to Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube undoubtedly occurred as I watched the graceful descent of the spacecraft waltzing through the inky darkness.
The pop culture list goes on and on; there is little to rival the timeless appeal of the human condition depicted via the librettos (text) set to such powerful music. I need to stop thinking of opera as guy gets stabbed; guy takes ten minutes to die, all while singing in a language I can't understand. It's those ten minutes, his soulful aria as he's dying, that speaks to the human condition.
Why did it take me a lifetime to understand that when I listen to opera with my heart it all makes sense?
Don't answer that!