Opera for Beginners (Part 1)
Vienna is the home of many wonderful opera performers, but the range of choices can be bewildering. In this three-part guide, our opera correspondent will introduce this challenging yet rewarding classical music genre.
Living in Vienna, think you should try some opera, but don’t know your Brünnhilde from your Bradamante? (Who? Exactly.) Dip your toe into the swirling waters of opera and you’ll soon be pulling on a pair of goggles, lathering yourself in lard and attempting your first channel crossing. Come on in, the water’s fine.
In his relatively short life (he died at 35), Mozart composed a staggering amount of music including concertos, symphonies, string quartets, songs and operas. Along with Verdi and Puccini, his operas are among the most performed around the world today. (See Part 2 for Mozart’s Top 5.)
So, where can you see opera in Vienna? The most obvious choice is the Vienna State Opera, on the corner of Kärntner Straße and the Opera Ring, at Karlsplatz. You know, the building surrounded by flocks of men in cloaks, tricorne hats and long boots, in an apparent nod to Mozart, but who look more like highwaymen, and certainly have the same imperative – to part you from your money. Ignore them and head inside.
The Vienna State Opera is one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world and is worth entering to admire the foyer alone. The company presents 50-60 different operas a year (more than any other opera house) and hosts a regular roster of the world’s most acclaimed singers, conductors and directors. A recently retired member of the Vienna State Opera Chorus told me that while working there she had 65 complete productions in her head at any one time. Amazeballs.
Walk into the foyer and pick up a free monthly “Spielplan” (or check out their schedule online), to see what’s coming up, cast lists, ticket prices, etc. Operas are performed in the original language, but you’ll find a screen at every seat offering a line-by-line translation into German or English.
Ticket prices are quite reasonable. A premium seat will set you back €100 - €250, but you can buy a decent seat in the balcony or gallery for €30 - €70. The cheap seats (under €30) sell out quickly, but are at the sides of the balcony/gallery or at the back of a box, so you have a restricted view of the stage.
If you prefer a bargain basement price, have time on your hands and no current injuries, your best option is to queue for Stehplatz (standing) tickets. These tickets are super cheap (€4 / €3) and afford a great view, but remember, some operas are rather long (we’re looking at you, Mr Wagner), and standing for the duration may test your good humour for the art form.
The running time of each opera (including intervals) is stated clearly in the schedule, so choose wisely and wear comfortable shoes.
The entry to the Stehplatz ticket counter is around the back of the opera house on Operngasse. Tickets go on sale 80 minutes before the performance, but the queue forms much earlier, especially if there’s a superstar in the cast. If you’re not sure, Google them and you’ll soon see via their online presence - hits on YouTube, glossy/sexy publicity photos, recording deals, entries on lists like “Bari-hunks”, I kid you not - whether they’re a big name or not. You can only buy one Stehplatz ticket per person, so your party must all arrive and queue together. There are 3 sections of Stehplätz: Parterre (orchestra level), Balkon (1st level) and Galerie (2nd level.) Take a scarf with you to mark your place inside, then head out for a drink (a very good idea) before the performance.
Wear layers (the cloakroom is free, and checking your coat in is compulsory), as it gets rather hot in the Parterre section of the Stehplatz with so many bodies in close proximity. If you have staying power you will be rewarded however, as 20-25% of the standing crowd won’t return after interval (and more again if there is a second intermission).
So, what opera should you see? Here’s a guide. Extra points for entertainment value, comedy, brevity and instantly recognizable tunes (did I hear you say Carmen?)
Opera Beginner’s Top 10:
1. Carmen - Bizet
2. La bohème - Puccini
3. Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) - Mozart
4. Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) - Rossini
5. L’elisir d’amor (The Elixir of Love) – Donizetti
6. Die Fledermaus - Johann Strauss II
7. Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) - Mozart
8. La Fille du régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment) - Donizetti
9. Cavalleria Rusticana / Pagliacci – Mascagni / Leoncavallo (two one-act operas, usually performed as a double bill)
10. Così fan tutte - Mozart
Enjoy. And remember, opera is full of hotties these days, so it may well be over before the fat lady sings. ;)