In honor of next week’s new production of La finta giardiniera, let’s talk about Vienna’s most consistently interesting opera house.
The Theater an der Wien has a rich and varied history. It was built in 1801 by Emmanuel Schikaneder (of Zauberflöte fame, check out the statue of him as Papageno on the right side of the building) and at one time or another it has served as a venue for basically anything that can be put into a theater. Back then it was on the bank of the Wien, but the river was diverted underground in the 1890s and the theater now faces the Naschmarkt. Today it calls itself “Das neue Opernhaus” (the new* opera house) and for the last few years has been hosting an outstanding schedule of operas mixed with concerts and other events.
It is explicitly Staatsoper counter-programming: a selective rather than comprehensive group of carefully rehearsed modern opera and music-theater productions, usually focusing on repertoire the Staatsoper ignores (17th, 18th, and 20th centuries, mostly). It’s the most highbrow music-theater program in town, and also the most consistently excellent in quality.
And oh yeah, they have standing room!
The Theater an der Wien is located on the Linke Wienzeile in the fourth district. It seats around 1,000 and has good acoustics. They do not have a house orchestra or chorus, though the excellent Arnold Schoenberg Choir is the usual choice. The default modern orchestra is the ORF RSO Wien, and the Baroque and 18th-century events feature a first-rate assortment of local and imported historical performance groups (such as Les Arts Florissants, the Concentus Musicus Wien, and Les Talens Lyriques). They do about one opera per month in around six or so performances plus a few concerts or other events. This stagione system allows for productions with more technical polish than your average evening at the Staatsoper (nice if you’re a lighting cue snob like me). Last year The New York Times published a nice article about the theater’s history and current life, if you’d like to find out more.
Until this season they were really the only game in town for major-league staged Baroque opera (Jacobs, Christie, and such), but the Staatsoper has programmed Alcina this season with Les Musiciens de Louvre, and the buzz at the Semele standing room line in September was that Dominique Meyer, the new Staatsoper intendant, is trying to compete with the Theater an der Wien’s niche. Possibly, but let me know when the Staatsoper stages things like Rameau and Monteverdi and then we’ll talk. (And in a city like this there can be more than one big venue for Baroque opera!) Meyer has hinted at future collaboration between the two houses.
Unfortunately the theater’s relatively pricey and poorly-located standing room isn’t their best feature. Standing room costs 7 Euros, almost twice the Staatsoper, and is located in the sides of the third ring. If you manage to get one of the best spots it’s OK, but many of the spots closer to the stage are partial view. Closer to the middle (further to the back) is best. But at least it’s more comfortable than the Musikverein.
This picture was taken from the end of standing room closest to the stage; you can see the standing room on the other side on the upper left (decorated by a few scarves):
The cheapest seats can generally be had for under 20 Euros, for concerts as low as 11 Euros. These tickets sell out well in advance, though, and most of them have restricted views of the stage, some of them worse than those of standing room (any of the dark purple seats on the seating chart are trouble). You can buy these tickets on the theater’s website or at their box office in the theater, or in the Wien-Ticket office in the pavilion in front of the Staatsoper. Do specify what you want, though, because they also sell tickets for musicals and God forbid a Deutsch als Fremdsprache accident should land you with a ticket for Tanz der Vampiren.
If you’re going to do standing room, it’s close to the same deal as the Staatsoper with a few differences. The most important difference is that after claiming your spot you won’t have time to go anywhere between that and the performance, so bring something to eat if you need to (lots of food at the Naschmarkt across the street). Tickets go on sale one hour before the performance, the line forms in the lobby of the theater but you enter through the box office just past the lobby.
The Theater an der Wien’s standing room isn’t nearly as much of an institution/tourist attraction as the Staatsoper. Despite having many fewer places, you don’t have to wait nearly as long. Even for a total bonanza like Cecilia Bartoli’s extremely sold out turn in Semele I only arrived around 3.5 hours before the performance and was the fifth or sixth person there, the wait at the Staatsoper for something comparable would have been much longer. (I waited for roughly the same amount of time for Juan Diego Florez’s Nemorino at the Staatsoper, and was around 50th in line.)
After buying your ticket, you get in line to go into the theater, in two lines (one left, one right). Once they open the doors around 40 or so minutes before the performance, the ushers will let you up the stairs and eventually into the theater, where everyone rushes to claim a spot. The places aren’t individually marked, they’re just rows. Do mark your place with a scarf or something, though if you stay there it isn’t strictly necessary.
Now you have around half an hour, which might seem like enough for a bite in the theater’s nice but expensive café, but really it isn’t. Just hang out and enjoy the show!
I surprisingly don’t have any pictures of the stage taken from standing room, but I will try to get one soon and add it to this post.
*New? Yes, they were playing musicals in the 1990s and you can say that Beethoven’s Fidelio, whose three different versions all premiered here, isn’t really an opera, but outside the little theater in Schönbrunn this is the oldest opera house in town.
Photos: top copyright Theater an der Wien, lower copyright Cosmopolis.ch.