So, you’re visiting Vienna and you want to go to the opera. Your guidebook suggests that you avail yourself of the many cheap standing room (Stehplatz) tickets sold on the day of each performance, but that’s just about all it says. If you want to know waaaay more than is necessary about the mechanics of the ritual that is the Wiener Staatsoper’s standing room, here’s your guide.
I’m assuming you’ve already decided to go to the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper). If they’re not your thing for some reason but you still want to go to a performance in Vienna, you should also consider the Theater an der Wien, Musikverein, Konzerthaus (no standing room), or Volksoper. I will write about these venues’ ticket policies later.
And: if you have any aspiration to see actual art onstage, absolutely never buy a concert ticket from anyone dressed as Mozart. Read on for something way better.
1. Should you do standing room?
Standing room’s great advantages are its low price (3-4 Euros), nonrequirement of advance planning, and, from the orchestra level standing room, fantastic sight lines. The seats for many performances sell out well in advance, particularly in the cheaper price categories, but almost all standing room tickets are sold the day of the show, and the view can be better than from seats costing over a hundred Euros. But you are, you know, standing for the whole opera. If you think you can easily grab an empty seat, think again. If you have problematic knees or any other health issues that could interfere this is probably not a good idea. Make sure you’re going to be able to enjoy it. I still hold a grudge against Manon Lescaut from an uncomfortable standing room experience.
|The view from the first row of Parterre standing room|
Also, pick your opera carefully. The Staatsoper schedule, available in the lobby and on their website, includes the length of each opera. Consider your operatic experience and general interests before going to anything long and/or that you think you may find dull. E.g., unless you are a Wagner fan, Parsifal is probably a bad idea. It might convert you but that long on your feet listening to grass grow might also make you want to shoot yourself. The Staatsoper plays one or two shortish golden oldies every week (Magic Flute, Barber of Seville, etc.) that are suitable for just about everybody. (But realize that these ones often get some combination of the least starry casts, most ramshackle productions, and most indifferent orchestra, if you care about that.)
2. When should I get in line?
Tickets go on sale 80 minutes before the opera starts. If you want a prime spot, you’re going to have to wait at least a little before that. There are three sections: Parterre (just above orchestra level) , Balkon (balcony), and Galerie (gallery). Parterre gets great views, but unless you are in the first two or three rows the sound is mediocre due to the overhang. Galerie sounds great and while it’s the top level of the house, it is not a big theater by American standards and from the center the view is still good (the side Galerie spaces have very bad sight lines). The upper level is less claustrophobic; the back half of Parterre can get very warm and crowded. You also don’t have to wait as long for Galerie spots because most of the early people take Parterre. I don’t recommend Balkon, it’s got all the drawbacks of Galerie with few of the advantages.
There’s no exact science of timing. Show up earlier if it’s a weekend or holiday or if there are any big names in the cast. If you are not informed in these matters but want to plan ahead, then Google the leading singers and see if they seem to have recording deals, fashion spreads, or personal cults of fanatics who have a nickname for themselves. Put their name into YouTube and if many videos appear factor in some extra time, particularly if lots of them look like they came from cell phones, because the people who make those videos will be in line and they show up insanely early.
|A long line outside in spring|
If you’re shooting for a good Parterre spot and there are no superstars in the cast, it’s safest to just check out the line at around 3:30 or 4:00 (for a 7:30 curtain), earlier if you are very keen, see that there are only five people there, go do something else and come back later. If there are big names then adjust forward, if you aren’t aiming for front Parterre adjust backwards. If Anna Netrebko is involved budget much of the day, I am not kidding here. Rare operas, particularly twentieth-century ones, are invariably less popular than well-known ones.
But never count on getting even a crappy spot without waiting, because X baritone you’ve never heard of might happen to be an old Vienna favorite and everyone turned out in force and there are also three busloads of Japanese tourists in line. You never know, is what I’m saying. However, most cancellations/casting changes happen before noon, so you can cross that fear off your list.*
You can only buy one ticket each, so make sure your whole group is in line.
3. So I’m going to get in line.
Shorts are very much frowned upon and by some of the stricter ushers banned altogether. Wear comfortable shoes. Don’t even think about heels, fellow ladies. If you’re showing up early, dress for waiting outside (though the line is under an overhang). But be advised that the auditorium itself gets warm and the dense Parterre standing area warmer. Regulars bring folding chairs or stools for the line (see the pictures). You also will need to bring a scarf or string to mark your spot in the auditorium. Snacks and books are also advisable. If it’s a Wagner opera other than Dutchman or Rheingold, bring a sandwich to eat between Acts 2 and 3. You will be glad you did this! Standing tires you out more than sitting.
The line forms on the Operngasse side of the opera house. This is the west side, near the Albertina, parallel to Kärtnerstrasse and to the left when you’re facing the building from the Ring but behind the fountain. There’s a small sign reading “Stehplätze/Standing Area.” (“Stehplätze” actually translates as “Standing Places,” but whatevs.) Depending on when you get there, the line is either outside under the overhang or inside behind this door. Also, get to know your line-mates! Austrians can be hard to start a conversation with but they’re usually friendly once you break the ice. As long as you explain to your line-mates, you can leave the line to get coffee or food or go to the bathroom or even, on a long wait, to get a quick lunch. Once you’re inside the opera house, though, the ushers are watching and you should mostly stay in line. There’s a bathroom in the hall just to the right of the ticket window.
|The line inside|
There are many intricate little steps in the process. Just follow the people in front of you. 80 minutes before the opera starts you’ll buy your ticket, try to have exact change. Tell the ticket-seller which section you want. The places aren’t assigned, and after buying your ticket you jog down the hallway behind the ticket booth, past the coat check, and left into the main part of the opera house. You then go left again and up one short flight of steps. If you’re in the gallery, continue upstairs until you hit the line, if you’re in the parterre you wait on this level in two lines, one at each entrance into the orchestra section of the house. Around 50-60 minutes before the opera starts, the ushers open the doors and lead the lines into the auditorium itself and everyone rapidly claims their spot (each marked by a single title viewer) as directed by the ushers. Tie your scarf around the bar below the titles to mark your place. Make sure you put your ticket somewhere you will be able to find it again.
If you’re not devoted, you can skip this part after buying your ticket and have more time for dinner, but realize that everyone else is tying their scarf somewhere and when you show up later after the crowds have cleared only the least desirable spots will be left. Some of these are, shall we say, a little short on personal space. Also on sight lines, if we’re talking Galerie sides.
If you waited to get a place, you now have 45 minutes or so to eat dinner. I usually bring something with me, but there’s also a Würst stand near the line and some Turkish food stands that also have pizza on the Ring. There’s a big Anker bakery with sandwiches in the passage under the Ring. Also, try to sit down for a while. Check your bag and/or coat when you get back to the house, it’s required and you want as much space in standing room as you can get.
Go back to your marked spot before the opera starts and enjoy the show! Note that moving someone else’s scarf is NOT DONE. Like, seriously, seriously not done. If an apparently clueless tourist has taken your spot, kick their ass out.
If you want a program you’ll have to buy one from an usher. These are elaborate books with lots of pictures of the production’s premiere cast and articles in German and stuff, there’s a plot summary in English at the very back. You can also just get the pamphlet with the evening’s cast and forgo the book, ask for “nur die Liste.”
I consider the Wiener Staatsoper standing room one of the best opera experiences you can get anywhere. The house itself is maddeningly inconsistent, but as well as an unbelievable bargain the standing room is a fascinating sociological experience and has an energy quite different from seeing an opera from a seat. It’s not for everyone, but I think it’s one of the best things Vienna has to offer its visitors. So do not fear the ritual, revel in it!
*Useful vocabulary: erkrankt (fallen ill), abgesagt (canceled), Umbesetzung (casting change), springt ein (substitutes). If the opera is obscure, cancellations can prompt dramatically short-notice changes of opera.