Vienna’s biggest stages have myriad secrets the audience never gets
It’s remarkable how daunting, yet fascinating, a few old, chipped wooden boards dangerously inclined toward the audience can be. Crisscrossed with a mosaic of colored tape that indicates positions for props, actors and dancers, it’s baffling for the uninitiated but an open book for the performer who learned its every dip and imperfection during rehearsals.
Nevertheless, it’s a magical, transformative space for everyone. It can look totally different in the morning without that long curtain hanging from the seemingly infinite ceiling, crowded with workers assembling sets. Everything is dusty, noisy, confused. Then evening arrives, the elegant red velvet curtain is closed and the audience is seated, waiting with anticipation.
An actor, face powdered and wearing black eyeliner, peeks through that regal red barrier, combating stage fright. The audience falls silent. And then, the curtains open and the spotlights fall on a young singer on a fake rock in a forest made of papier-mâché. The orchestra slowly starts and, finally, stage and audience connect. Yet, before it can come to that, a small army of performers, technicians and crew must put in long hours and use elaborate techniques to make that magical moment happen.
THE BURGTHEATER UNDERGROUND
Opened in 1888, the Burgtheater was designed from the ground up to be Austria’s greatest stage. Even today, its 800 productions spanning multiple venues – besides the main stage across from the Rathaus, it also operates the Vestibül, Kasino and Akademie theater – draw over 400,000 annually, making it the best- attended theater in Europe.
Enriched by frescoes created by the young “Artist Company” formed by Gustav Klimt and his brother Ernst alongside Franz Matsch above the majestic entrance staircase, it quickly became the Germansphere’s greatest stage; its ensemble of 530 are reverently referred to as Burgschauspieler (Burg actors), and, if they weren’t famous before, the “Burg” offers many opportunities to raise one’s standing with its packed schedule and regular premieres.
Its season traditionally goes from September to June – with a different play and set every day, so the action behind the curtain is complex, chaotic and fast. Known for Elaborate productions, every year it goes through 15 cubic meters of artificial snow and 100 liters of fake blood, among other things.
In fact, the Burgtheater backstage is considerably bigger than the auditorium. It’s large enough that frequently used sets can be stored right behind the curtain; otherwise, they’re moved to underground storage with the help of a massive elevator – each objecthas to be designed so that it can fit. Another option for quick scene changes is the Burg’s cylindrical stage, 21 meters wide and reaching five stories underground: this allows the stage both to rotate and cycle different sets, which are daisy-chained on multiple levels. As a result, the understage is a labyrinth of costumes, statues, dressing rooms and dozens of chairs; when you finally re-emerge, the scent of roses from the Volksgarten next door – piped in through its elaborate ventilation system – smell that much sweeter.
THE BUSY VOLKSOPER
While the Staatsoper may be better known internationally, the Volksoper remains a particularly magical place, specializing in musicals, ballets, operas and operettas – the only theater in Vienna to cover all four. Just like the Burgtheater, its season goes from September to June, its modest but active stage showing over 100 operettas per year – a point of pride, as it’s one of the last theaters in Europe to preserve that tradition.
Such a frenetic schedule needs to be planned to the last detail, with three complete scenery changes almost every day. When Metropole visited, there were rehearsals for Jule Styne’s Gypsy in the morning, and performances of Der Mantel during the first half and Gianni Schicchi during the second half of the evening, so sets and props had to be moved fast, frequently prepped during the day with the help of a large technical crew of 216 people. During the season, the stage is never empty, even for a single moment: The in-house ensemble numbers 60, sharing the stage with about 100 external singers and a choir of 68, 96 orchestral staff and a ballet company of 24 dancers, not counting guest soloists.
The Volksoper also does much to nurture the next generation of music lovers with regular performances of Hänsel und Gretel and Der Zauberer von Oz (The Wizard of Oz), deep discounts for ages 15 and under and by maintaining its own children’s choir. Numbering 150, these budding singers have practice and lessons every week in addition to rehearsals, with many pursuing a theatrical career in adulthood, failing to escape the allure of the stage.
ELEVATING MUSIC AT THE KONZERTHAUS
With four halls and a star-studded program, the Konzerthaus shares the distinction, along with the Musikverein, as the City of Music’s premier institution. While organizing world-class concerts is less elaborate than a full stage performance, this celebrated concert hall still has some tricks of the trade that ensure the magic happens.
Backstage, everything is reduced to the essential: no make-up, no costumes, a big underground staging room for orchestras, a handful of in-house coordinators – and a feverish atmosphere of intense focus. But bulky instruments still pose a challenge. Every time a pianist performs at the Großer Saal (Grand Hall), a selection of two to three instruments are transported via special elevator from a storage area beneath the stage, where five pianos, each of them handmade and worth around €200,000, are kept under specific temperatures and humidity.
With the help of a stage manager, every pianist tests which one is right for them and the piece they’ll play before a concert. Is the sound bright, warm, penetrating or voluminous? Once the artist has made their pick, a piano tuner finally sets it, usually taking over half a day.
With the arts such a seminal piece of Austria’s cultural heritage, it’s no surprise that so much effort is invested to keep the magic alive; so next time you
attend a performance, don’t just applaud for the artists on stage – remember the ones who toil behind the curtain as well.
Known for elaborate productions, every year [the Burgtheater] goes through 15 cubic meters of artificial snow and 100 liters of fake blood, among other things.