Ask about the world’s best opera venues and most people mention the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House) in the same breath as La Scala or The Met…
- First opened in 1869
- Heavily damaged in 1945, but reopened in 1955
- Performances change daily and often feature the top stars of the opera world
- Also home to the Vienna State Ballet and the famous Opernball
- Each seat has its own screen offering multilingual subtitles
- See also: Tour of the State Opera House | Opera in Vienna
The State Opera House
The Staatsoper opens onto Vienna’s Ringstraßen boulevard, but relatively wide streets and open spaces surround the other three sides, too.
This standalone location gives the building a particular presence in Vienna’s city centre, like a grand diva towering above the orchestra pit. I find myself often using it as a reference to guide people to other locations.
A brief history of the building
The opera house greeted its first visitors in 1869 as the Hofoper (court opera) for a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Like many of Vienna’s landmarks, the building owes its existence to the removal of the city fortifications in the mid-19th century and the opening up for construction of the park-like Glacis area that kept the suburbs at bay.
(The freshly-built Staatsoper in the late 19th century. Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum. See more historical photos of Vienna)
Architect August von Sicardsburg (1813-1868) designed the basic renaissance-style building, while Eduard van der Nüll (1812-1868) took care of the interior decor.
The public reaction to the Staatsoper at the time was broadly negative, and this criticism certainly contributed to the untimely death of both architects before the official opening.
A newspaper article just days after the opening offered a robust defence of the two architects’ work, blaming Viennese pessimism and the population’s love of mockery and grumbling for the bad press. It stated:
The interior is such that the new opera house is perhaps the most beautiful theatre in Europe.
(Staatsoper auditorium photographed around 1940 by Martin Gerlach jun., Wien Museum Inv.-Nr. 211273, reproduced with permission under the terms of the CC0 licence)
Unfortunately, the original building failed to escape the ravages of WWII, with allied bombs destroying large parts of it in 1945. The rebuilding work took around ten years, with Beethoven’s Fidelio welcoming audiences at the reopening in 1955.
Today’s opera house looks especially fantastic at night (see the photo below). The interior is, as that 19th-century writer remarked, quite gorgeous.
I can highly recommend the in-house tour that takes you through the building and out behind the surprisingly large stage. Some parts are fully original in their historical glory; the main staircase, for example, survived the aerial bombing intact.
Callas and Cruise
As an opera house, the Staatsoper sits at the high table of world culture. The playing schedule varies daily, so you won”t find continuous runs of any one particular production.
Puccini’s Madame Butterfly might pine for a lost lover on Thursday, Strauss’s Salome do the dance of the seven veils on Friday, and Bottom make an ass of himself on Saturday in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
(Not to mention the occasional ballet thrown in for good measure: the Staatsoper opera also houses the Vienna State Ballet.)
Around 200 stagehands, vast numbers of costumes, swathes of scenery, and a whole lot of storage space combine to ensure sets can be switched in and out quickly, as required by the changing performance.
A permanent in-house ensemble also helps make such a dynamic schedule possible. Guest performers, conductors, directors and others from the crème de la crème of the operatic universe complement the Staatsoper’s own team for selected productions.
Claudio Abbado, Luciano Pavarotti , Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Joan Sutherland, Anna Netrebko, Montserrat Caballé, Plácido Domingo, Gustav Mahler, José Carreras, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Riccardo Muti, and Herbert von Karajan are just some of the names who’ve worked at (or with) the Staatsoper.
(The raised area next to the Albertina Museum make an ideal spot for taking photos of the Staatsoper)
And it’s not just the prestigious operatic history that contributes to the opera house’s fame. It hosts the world-famous Opernball (Vienna Opera Ball) in February, for example, and even played a central role in one of the Mission Impossible films.
So if anyone asks you what connects Callas and Cruise, you now have the answer.
Aside from a ticket or tour, there are a couple of other ways to experience the joys of the building or a live performance:
- The Staatsoper offers a live streaming service with broadcasts of selected performances
- Performances in the warmer months may be shown on a huge screen outside the opera house
- Google features the Vienna State Opera in its Arts & Culture project
Incidentally, every seat and standing place inside has its own small screen displaying subtitles for the opera in question, with a choice of eight languages (including English and German, of course).
How to get to the Staatsoper
You probably pass the Staatsoper on your travels around the city centre. It’s a short walk from the pedestrianised centre – just wander up Kärntner Straße from Stephansdom cathedral, for example. If you want accommodation close by, then here are some suggestions.
Subway: the Oper exit from Karlsplatz subway station drops you pretty much at the doorstep. Karlsplatz is on the U1, U2 and U4 subway lines. Alternatively, the very central Stephansplatz station (U1 and U3) is just up the road, too.
Tram/bus: there’s a tram stop opposite (Oper/Karlsplatz), served by the 1, 2, D, 71 and 62 trams. Or take the 2A city centre bus to Kärntner Straße.
Address: Opernring 2, 1010 Vienna | Website