A tourist’s guide to music in Vienna

You’re visiting Vienna and want to hear some music. But there are so many choices, and the guys dressed as Mozart carrying binders offering tickets are so tempting. Don’t do it! Read this guide instead and find some real music. (Warning: difficult during July and August. Yeah, maybe this wan’t the best time to write this. But there are some options!)

Please, please don’t make a deal with the Mozart men. They are the dudes (and a few ladies) who you see in olde tyme garb outside all music venues and various tourist attractions aggressively suggesting you buy tickets to their concerts. They represent a variety of shady organizations, but most will send you to a short concert of light music catered exclusively to tourists, possibly in a historic setting. The tickets are very expensive and I have heard from accounts that they are falsely represented (particularly that they do not take place in the quite the same lovely setting that is advertised, but also that they play Strauss waltzes while wearing 18th century outfits, which is just wrong). But even if they’re honestly described, you should go to a real concert, not to this kitsch.

(Kitsch has a venerable place in Austrian history and culture. But these concerts are not artistic efforts, they’re solely aimed at your wallet. Even if you don’t normally go to classical concerts, Vienna’s a great place to give a real one a chance.)

About Tickets

Seeking a ticket…

If you don’t need to be told this and know what you like in terms of concerts and opera, you should plan ahead. This is absolutely vital for the seats at the Staatsoper (last-minute tickets are sometimes available but they are usually only very expensive ones) and also for any Konzerthaus or Musikverein concert featuring someone famous. You can order tickets on the venues’ websites, all of which are available in English versions. If you aren’t picky, between September and the end of June there is almost always something going on. July and August are sparse.

Standing for concerts and opera is an institution in Vienna. It rarely requires advance planning and is very cheap, and a great option for tourists. Sometimes it can require waiting in line, though. Read my guides here to the standing rooms of Vienna, including the Staatsoper, Theater an der Wien, and Musikverein. For the Volksoper, see below.

Be aware that there’s a thriving industry of scalpers in Vienna. You will see their ticket offerings in store windows, or see them in front of the doors before something starts, unloading unsold seats. If you want to see something sold out and have the cash to pay significantly over face value, they can help. Otherwise, stay away. If you see a sign advertising tickets for a major event that isn’t a) at the performance venue itself, b) the Vienna-Ticket booth across from the Staatsoper or c) the Bundestheaterkasse office across from the other side of the Staatsoper, you’ve found a scalper. This particularly goes for the EMI Store on Kärtnerstrasse, which sells Musikverein standing room tickets for double their face value (including events that are not nearly sold out). I can’t believe this is legal.

Where to Go
The major venues are in business from sometime in September and the end of June. The 800-pound gorilla of musical attractions is the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera). They have a giant repertoire, lots of famous singers, lots of non-famous singers, a mixture of conservative old productions and half-assed Regietheater, and a tendency towards scrappiness. Their performances vary in quality from world-class to utterly provincial from night to night. It’s a crap shoot, but worth trying. The standing room is giant and its rituals form a cult, a wonderful activity for tourists. You can read my guide to it here. If you simply must sit, either order ahead, bring lots of money, or hope you get lucky. All operas include the option of English titles.

The Volksoper (People’s Opera) doesn’t attract as many tourists as the Staatsoper, and is located a little bit out of the city center on the Gürtel. But I recommend you consider it, particularly if you don’t care about name-value casts and/or don’t want to deal with the expense or standing of the Staatsoper. Performances rarely sell out and seats are very reasonably priced (you can get a perfectly good seat for 15-20 Euros). Their repertoire consists of opera, operetta, and musicals, are often family-friendly and sometimes are performed with English surtitles. For their accessibility, their consistent level of quality and creativity is very good. Tickets are available at the Bundestheaterkasse on Goethegasse (across from the Staatsoper), online, and at the house itself. They do have standing room; you can order those tickets in any of those ways as well. You might even catch an up-and-coming singer–the phenomenal Walther I saw there in 2006 was none other than currently reigning Heldentenor Johan Botha.

The Theater an der Wien is the most highbrow of Vienna’s opera houses, and my personal favorite. They only perform one opera a month, plus a few concerts, and their repertoire is dedicated to rarities, new works, Baroque opera, and other things that benefit from their small space (1,000 seats). Productions tend to be on the modern, Regie side of things. Performances with famous singers such as Cecilia Bartoli or Placido Domingo sell out very quickly, but those are the minority. They also have standing room, here is my guide. You can get tickets from the Vienna Ticket booth across from the Staatsoper near Kärtnerstrasse, online, or at the theater itself (located across from the Naschmarkt). No English titles here, brush up on the plot of Admeto before you go or check the back of your program for a short English synopsis. Their café is also excellent.

The Musikverein is the most famous of Vienna’s concert halls, you may have seen it on TV on New Year’s with the Philharmoniker sawing out waltzes. They host the Philharmoniker, the Ton-Künstler Orchester Niederösterreich, the Wiener Symphoniker, the ORF RSO Wien, and many visiting orchestras, plus solo recitals and chamber music. The Großer Saal is the big famous one, recitals happen in the smaller Brahms-Saal. Their standing room is kind of miserable, but very accessible, my guide is here.

TIckets for the Philharmoniker’s subscription concerts at the Musikverein are sold by the orchestra themselves rather than by the Musikverein’s box office. The rules on these are special for seats and standing, see the guide to the Musikverein for the details.

The other big concert hall is the Konzerthaus, located near the Stadtpark. Their guests are in aggregate not quite so famous as those of the Musikverein, but their programming tends to be more interesting. The Symphoniker and RSO Wien are regulars, and many visiting orchestras show up. Their recital hall is called the Mozart-Saal. Alone among major Viennese venues, they don’t have standing room, so plan ahead if you can. Students under 27 can get any available tickets right before the start for 15 Euros. Be aware the the last few rows of the Galerie in the Großer Saal have bad sight lines, which can make conductors and soloists disconcertingly invisible.

I can’t help you with the Vienna Boys’ Choir, having never seen them myself. Recently I heard a report that a concert featured them singing “We are the World,” so I have not yet rectified this. Sorry, I’m a snob.

Summer (July and August)
The Theater an der Wien is usually in business, but this year (2011) they are renovating and are not. There is usually a short opera season at the gorgeous Baroque theater in the Schloss Schönbrunn, but they sadly have lost their funding and had to cancel their season. Pickings, in other words, are slim. You can head out to Grafenegg for Rudolf Buchbinder’s growing festival (book the bus back to Vienna because you WILL miss the train) or take the legendary Baden Bahn train to Baden for operetta at the Bühne Baden (Baden Baden Baden Baden! there’s one near Vienna too) or go further south to Graz for Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s Styriarte. You can also watch various operas and concerts outside for free almost every night in July and August at the Rathaus Film Festival (City Hall), with lots of local cuisine. Or just get on the train and go to the Salzburg Festival, for God’s sake (note: not recommended for beginners).

And, most importantly, don’t forget to look up your local orchestra and opera company once you get home.

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  1. Zerbinetta, I think I'm a snob too. Good to know there's company! I hope to visit Vienna one day; I will certainly refer to your guide.

  2. Great round-up, hope it gets many hits.

    I would have warmer words for the Konzerthaus: sure, the programming isn't uncompromisingly bold, but I find them more adventurous to other European halls similar in character. The approach to programming strongly resembles that of the Barbican, for instance, though I think the KH does it better. And I still can't bear the Barbican's acoustic even after the refit. When I was taken to the KH as a 'Bub', I remember thinking that the musicians may as well have well been playing in an airfield hangar; the recent refit (2000ish?) worked much more successfully and the sound there is really quite good now. I like the KH Intendant too. He often sells the place with typical Viennese overstatement, but I've heard him speak on the radio with obvious insight into and interest in similar venues around the world, and don't get the sense he's at all parochial, or believes in this Viennese 'Einzigartigkeit' nonsense.

    A short word about Grafenegg: don't bother with events at the Wolkenturm unless the programme and musicians are special. I've not been able to avoid it this year for HK Gruber's Frankenstein!!, which I've always wanted to hear live. Best to stick to the auditorium if you can, it's not as acoustically unsatisfying.

  3. Short PS: yes, the Vienna Boys' Choir should definitely be avoided as much as the Mozart men. They are simply APPALLING. I had to endure them opening a Japan benefit concert at the KH recently, and had cause to wince so much that it felt like a curse to have pitch. And the less said about their repertoire the better.

  4. Zerb,
    Great information, as always. When we planned our trip this past spring, our travel agent was going to book tickets to one of those Mozart/Strauss pastiches and we said NO–we took care of the arrangements ourselves and had a grand time at the Staatsoper (we were at Elektra the same night you were; sorry we didn't connect) and a fascinating Heineabend at the Brahmssaal.
    I second your recommendation of the Volksoper. I've seen fine productions there with equally fine voices.
    Note on food: the Naschmarkt across from the Theatre an der Wein is a wonderful venue for cafes, bistros, and fresh fruits, veggies, nuts, and spices.
    The pizza stands across the street from the Staatsper offer good deals.
    Happy summer, all.

  5. Andrew, do visit!

    SS, sorry to undercredit the Konzerthaus, I love them too. But they are a little more for the Kenner than Liebhaber, and I think the Kenners will be able to appreciate their virtues without me pointing them out. And thanks for the Grafenegg info, I have to confess I've never actually been there. And you are further convincing me that I never need to hear the Boys.

    Donna Anna, good for you on your planning but I have to disagree about that pizza, which I think is dubious and SS has some stronger words about. I got a real clunker of a falafel sandwich from one of those stands recently too. For wurst, the stand near the Albertina is one of the better ones in Vienna, but the one on the south edge of the Ring going towards Karlsplatz is to be avoided at all costs. There's also an Anker bakery in the Karlsplatz UBahn Passage.

  6. Zerb,
    We had good luck with the pizza and I forgot about Anker Bakery which is even better than the pizza. Since we don't eat wurst, we saved ourselves that agony.

  7. Donna Anna: I've gone almost completely native with the dialect, but even I draw the line at (most) Würst'l. You probably got to the pizza when it was fresh out of the oven. Unfortunately I always get there five hours later, when it seems that the same slices are still on display (congealed cheese, revolting).

    Zerb, you're right to bring up 'Kenner, die schon wissen', sorry, should have paid better attention to your *tourist* guide byline.

    One additional thing that I forgot, though not really a 'concert': the Augustinerkirche on Sunday mornings. The choir, orchestra and organist are all professional – well, choir semi-professional (I know that they are paid at least, only other choral ensemble in Vienna apart from the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, interestingly enough). So it's the only decent live church music you'll hear in Vienna (AVOID THE STEPHANSDOM), if not up to English cathedral choir standards. Repertoire is mostly Mozart, Haydn, Schubert masses (they do a mean Spatzen- and Krönungsmesse), though occasionally it gets more interesting with something like Langlais. Warning: this means getting up early(ish) for a Sunday morning and risking some questionable statements from the pulpit (they always seem to find some delightful way of peppering 'God is Love' with barely concealed misogyny and homophobia). Franz Welser-Möst is connected with the place for some reason, and conducts the Sunday morning mass once a year or so (expect that to be packed well ahead of time). Generally advisable to get there at least 30 minutes before, unless you don't might standing.

    PS Choir on holiday in July and August ('instrumental' mass takes place then, though why it must be always something mediocre for trumpet and organ and never the sublime Couperin organ masses, I don't understand).

  8. Where would one view a waltz performance in Vienna? My daughter is taking waltz dance lessons and would love to see a performance. We will be visiting in April. Thank you.

  9. Best post!!!!!!!!you can bring a digital and/or disposable camera. You are not allowed to bring a professional camera that is like $500+ unless you have a press pass, in which that case you need to call the venue and ask for permission.Thanks:)