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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Ich kann nicht sitzen: Standing Room at the Theater an der Wien

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.

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Ich kann nicht sitzen: Standing Room at the Musikverein and Philharmoniker

Vienna’s Musikverein is famous for its golden-ness, its acoustics, and one of its home orchestras, the sexist bastards known as the Wiener Philharmoniker.  Indeed, the place sure is shiny and sounds pretty.  The Wiener Symphoniker, ORF RSO Wien, Tonkünstler-Orchester Niederösterreich, and lots of touring orchestras play there too, as well as many recitalists and chamber music groups.

The Musikverein, located just south of the Ring off Karlsplatz, is an unmissable stop on the tourist trail, but is hardly a model of institutional innovation.  Individual programs can be good, but tend towards the conservative.  The season as a whole lacks variety (something we will look at more shortly in my Duplicate Programming Watch), there are few reduced-price ticket programs, and their website is a bit on the primitive side (though it nicely identifies the encores performed at past concerts).  However, if you’re in Vienna and haven’t seen and heard it, you really have to go.

Their standing room isn’t the best and sometimes resembles a contact sport, but it gets the job done, after a fashion.  Also, if you were thinking of going to the New Year’s Concert, you should probably forget about it.  I can’t help you with that, anyways.

1. Basics
The Musikverein has two main spaces: the Großer Saal (big hall) and Brahms-Saal (a recital hall).  The Brahms-Saal doesn’t have standing room, but you can get restricted-view seats for around 5 Euros.  The Großer Saal is where you will hear orchestras and a few bigger-deal recitals and chamber groups.  Both are rectangular “shoebox” theaters with one balcony; the standing room in the Großer Saal is located in the back of the ground level, under the balcony.

Tickets are bought in advance on the Musikverein website or at the ticket office, located on the north side of the building (look for signs for the Konzertkassa).  They go on sale at the same time seats do (two months minus one week before the concert) and cost 6 Euros.  You can buy as many as you want.  They are usually easy to get even the day of the concert with the exception of Wiener Philharmoniker concerts, which often sell out.

2. Wiener Philharmoniker standing room tickets
Standing tickets for many Philharmoniker concerts at the Musikverein are sold by the Philharmoniker directly.  You can see the orchestra’s schedule here.  The tickets for concerts in the first two categories, “Abonnementkonzerte” and “Soiréen”, are sold at the Philharmoniker’s ticket office according to their (totally different) policies.  The Philharmoniker’s office is a five-minute walk north from the Musikverein on the Ring (Kärtnerring, just counter-clockwise from the Oper, the “outer” side).  They sell the standing tickets for each Abonnementkonzert and Soirée starting the Monday morning before the concert, in person only.  You can try later in the week too but don’t count on anything.

The Musikverein’s printed program says “ausverkauft” for all the Abonnementkonzerte and Soiréen, but that doesn’t mean the standing room is sold out, just that the seats are.  Which they always are.  (What’s the difference between an Abonnementkonzert and a Soirée?  Unless you are a subscriber or aspire to become one [good luck with that], the only difference is Soiréen are always on weekdays, Abonnementkonzerte on weekends.)

Tickets for the Philharmoniker concerts listed under “Zusätzliche Konzerte” are available at the box office of whatever venue or organization is producing the concert following that presenter’s policies–the Musikverein, the Konzerthaus, etc.  For example, the October 19 Philharmoniker concert with Mahler 6 is already on sale at the Musikverein box office, but standing tickets for the previous weekend’s Bruckner Abonnementkonzert won’t be on sale until Monday, October 11 at the Philharmoniker box office.

Don’t ask me why it’s like this, I’m guessing it has something to do with a contract signed in approximately 1893.  Things don’t change very fast here–just look at these groups’ websites.

3. The evening of the concert
Once you have your ticket, no matter where you bought it, show up an hour or so before the concert and get in line for the hall to open.  If it’s a big concert and you want to be able to see anything at all, show up earlier.  If you don’t care if you can see, show up whenever.  Check your coat and large bags downstairs beforehand, you can’t bring them into the hall.  There are two lines, one for house left and one right.  When it’s time to claim spots the ushers let everyone in and there is a rapid free-for-all into the big open space that constitutes standing room.  The first row of spots disappear in the blink of an eye, go as fast as you possibly can.  The people in the front can lean on the bar marking off the space and see stuff, as long as they aren’t behind a pillar (which always happens to me).  Everyone else is just standing in the big open area, craning their necks.  The big disadvantage is that you don’t have anything to lean on unless you are in the front.  It’s pretty uncomfortable.

If an usher appears in standing room 10-15 minutes before the performance, run towards him or her as fast as you can, because he or she might have free extra tickets and will give you a seat.  It only happens occasionally, though.

Not the best way to experience a concert, if you ask me, but seats at the Musikverein can be pricey and hard to get.  The Staatsoper standing room is an excruciating process for a big reward, this is an easy process for a less awesome prize.  But it works.

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Ich kann nicht sitzen: Standing Room at the Vienna State Opera

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.

Final Notes
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.

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