The sun was setting as I walked down Josefstädter Straße towards the Rathausplatz. Stories of magical summer evenings had long tempted me, tasting foods from all over the world and watching films of great opera, ballet, and concerts under the stars. It’s an event the Viennese wait for all year. Now, I would find out why.
The new corona-era regulations, posted online, make it possible to book the free places in advance. But I was too late; they were full for the next two weeks. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, so I headed down hoping there would be a spot for me anyway. To my surprise and delight, there was. Still, with these new measures in place, I wasn’t sure what to expect…
At the gate, we were asked to fill out a form – name, email and phone number – so they could track us if necessary. Then we went on in. As I tried to orient myself, a woman took pity on me and helped me find my seat. In front of the screen, seats were in groups of two or four and socially distanced. I was alone in a cluster of four, but it didn’t matter: I was mesmerized by the gentle waltzes and warm lights bathing the magnificent Rathaus.
Innocence and Tragedy
The film of the evening was Romeo and Juliet Ballet by Sergei Prokofiev – whose heart-breaking contradictions the composer had been reluctant to take on as a ballet. Yet it became, of all his work, the most beloved and most performed. This acclaimed 2019 film version with the Royal Ballet, was a restaging by Michael Nunn of Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s legendary choreography from the 1970s, with William Bracewell und Francesca Hayward in the title roles.
While the dancers moved with aching tenderness through innocence and tragedy, I felt increasingly blessed to be there. Coming from Canada, this isn’t a type of event I am accustomed to – an outdoor film projected onto a 300 m2 giant screen, against the backdrop of a grand Gothic City Hall, open and free to the public. As more people slowly strolled in, the ambiance of the falling darkness was softened with a warm breeze, carrying delicious aromas from the gastronomy section at the back.I lost myself in the mysteries of the moment…
When the ballet was over, I found I had worked up an appetite (deserved or not!) and followed my nose to the white tents of the hospitality section.I discovered a second area of chairs just behind me called Carmen’s Corner, set aside for dining at the comfort of your own table.
Behind that, in the last area, is the hospitality section with an entrance from Ringstrasse and tables allocated by the staff. This section seats 500 guests, at appropriate distances and with cashless payments only, from 11 a.m. to midnight. Klein aber fein– “small but special”– is the culinary motto of selected international menus – on this evening several Austrian classics, Mediterranean, Asian, “Healthy Cuisine,” and Sweet Treats.
Succulent aromas wafted through the air, as people sat in groups of usually four or six enjoying their meals at large tables. Groups again were distanced, but somehow it didn’t feel awkward: Friends enjoying an evening together, sipping wine and laughing out loud – a perfect summer atmosphere under warm lighting and the long shadows the tall trees on either side.
Of course, the new regulations seemed to make a lot difference to the regulars – one heard a resigned “na ja” hear or there – but it was still a night to remember. Afterward, taking a walk through the park seemed the perfect way to finish off the evening. Thankfully, I realized, it was only halfway through the season: there will be many more warm summer nights that allow us to experience evenings like these.