Austria owes a lot to the United States: Chosen as a strategic outpost along the Iron Curtain, Austria was the largest recipient per capita of Marshall Fund support critical to rebuilding the country’s shattered economy after World War II, and ultimately, to bringing an end to Soviet occupation in 1955. That same year, a group of Austrian expats in New York City decided to hold a ball – actually a dinner dance – to recreate a tradition they had loved in Vienna in their new home that they wanted to share with their American friends.
Now in its 65th season, the Viennese Opera Ball (VOB) New York is among the most elegant events of the city’s social season. With some 500 international guests, soloists from the Metropolitan Opera and musicians flown in from Vienna, this white tie event in the magical elegance of Cipriani’s on 42 Street is news of a special kind: in New York because it is unique; in Vienna because it is in New York.
“There is really nothing else like it here,” said Austrian event manager Silvia Frieser, VOB president and executive director since 2016, joined by Austrian baritone Daniel Serafin, artistic director. “The music, the dancing – these are always at the center, just the way we do in Vienna.”
And what’s different? “Several open bars and a four-course dinner! You never get that in Vienna,” she said laughing. “And, of course, the Americans are a little bit helpless with the dancing!” But Frieser has a program for that –more on that later on.
Today’s guest list is about 40% Austrians to 60% Americans, including six tables of Austrians who come to New York just for the ball – diplomats, executives and young people who want to debut in Manhattan. “This is great,” she said. “We never had that before.” But mostly, it’s important for the Austrians who live there. “In New York, there are so many events. But this is the one where everybody comes.”
For Americans, “it’s being part of a tradition, a culture with a long history to it. Especially among the young people, I see a longing for tradition. They don’t have so many chances to do this, even in New York. It’s the feeling of being part of the Old World. We grow up with this, so they feel they are part of something.”
Culture – and a good cause
The Viennese Opera Ball New York, like those in Vienna, is a debutante cotillion, where young women and their escorts “open” the ball in a ceremony of waltzes and line dances carefully choreographed (Tanzschule Svabek), rehearsed and performed, displaying the graces required for a civilized life. But in the Viennese tradition, stuffy it is not. In the American tradition, it is also a fundraiser for charity. Thus, Frieser explained, it is a perfect marriage between the richness of Austrian culture and an American commitment to philanthropy, selecting a different charity “partner” each year to receive a donation well into six figures. In short, culture for a good cause.
Begun in 18th century Europe to introduce young ladies to society, the debutante cotillion was taken up by the “old families” and the nouveau riche of fin de siècle New York, whence it spread to Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and parts west. Suspended in wartime, the tradition persisted, and as late as 1970, there were still half a dozen major cotillions in Manhattan, and countless private balls for young women from East Coast private schools – although between the Counter Culture and the Women’s Movement, being a debutant was fast becoming “uncool.”
There was a brief revival in the Reagan years, until balls fell out of favor again over what the old guard considered tasteless display, plus some ugly stories of the abuse of charitable tax status for private entertainments. Another revival in the late ’90s, when the first generation of Feminist daughters (now headed for Ivy League MBAs) decided it was a tradition worth preserving – and perhaps just a great excuse for a party.
Authenticity has its price
Entering the new millennium, the VOB became increasingly corporatized, more about company tables and favors for clients than about families and young people. So perhaps the 2008 financial crisis was a blessing in disguise – at least culturally. Stricter oversight made it harder to pad corporate budgets, however good the cause; the VOB needed a new approach.
Frieser’s goal was to bring more of Austria, and more young people, back to the ball. They hired a Viennese dance orchestra and emphasized Austrian products in the Damen- and Herrenspende gift bags: A Christmas ornament from Swarovski, leather goods from Horn, designs from the Wiener Werkstätte. “Very elegant, very special things,” Frieser said. This takes management: “Some companies want to just get rid of things that didn’t sell. We don’t want that.”
She also advertised in the Austrian media, with the happy result of more young people – and their families – taken by the idea of “opening” at a ball in New York.
Of course none of this comes cheap: Tickets start at $1,100 for individuals, about the same as the Opernball in Vienna. But then again, that’s it: You don’t go out for dinner before hand, or pay-as-you-go all evening long. “With us, everything is included, from 19:30 until 4:00 in the morning. Not at all like Vienna,” Frieser said.
“Of course, the Austrians still complain about the prices! Even the ones who have been living here for 30 years and should understand this by now, this idea of giving back to society. In New York, everybody is looking for a way to give donations somewhere.”
Counting to three
What the Austrians do understand is how to dance. Many young Viennese attend classes at the Elmayer Tanzschule and elsewhere, in preparation for opening at one of the city’s 60-odd balls. And in the months leading up to ball season, refresher courses are everywhere. Nothing like this exists in the US, where the dancing school tradition faded as society changed in the 1970s, leaving little but John Travolta and Dancing With the Stars. So Frieser has had her work cut out for her.
“The waltz turns out to be quite difficult for people who didn’t learn it as teenagers,” she reported. “It is very difficult for them to count until three!” She laughed. “They want to do just one-two, one-two. So when you say, but there is another beat, a third step – that’s the difficulty.” She laughed again. “It’s really funny.”
Cooperating with Arthur Murry Dance Studio, she arranged for comp classes to be included as part of the ticket price. It wasn’t enough. “You would be amazed at how few people use it. How few actually take any dance classes before the ball.”
So she started bringing in professional dancers, men and women, who go around to the tables and invite people to dance. “Usually women like to dance more than men, and the women would complain, ‘Oh, my husband doesn’t like to dance. But I want to dance!’
The professionals are a perfect solution. And the men sometimes surprise themselves: “They are charmed to be asked by these lovely young women. So they usually accept the invitation too.” And while they are dancing, the pros give little mini-lessons, helping the guests get over their shyness. “We’ve gotten really great feed back on this,” Frieser reported. As the floor gets more crowded, the guests find they are just another couple of dancers indistinguishable among so many, free to be themselves at the ball.
Later, while the guests enjoy their dinner, the pros take advantage of the open dance floor to let go, gliding across the floor in seamless display. The waltz itself captures a paradox of the sensual pleasures held at bay, the seeming contradiction of heady intoxication refined through grace. The left-turning Linkswalzer may be the most beautiful version, the dancers arched backward as if in suspended animation. “Yes,” said Frieser, with a wistful look. “It’s like floating across the dance floor.”
A culture of contradictions
But in fact, the Viennese ball itself was always rife with contradictions: An aristocratic diversion, it was also entertainment for all, enjoyed by royalty, civil servants, tradesmen and the working class alike. Elegant and mannered, it also was – and still is – rollicking good fun, not Jane Austen’s invitation-only world of country house minuets.
The waltz belonged to a rising Bourgeoisie with the verve and creative energy of a 19th century transformed by industrialization, where all were welcome for the price of a ticket. In the vast, ornate dance halls like the Apollo- or Sophiensäle, soldiers mingled with shopkeepers and a baron might be seen dancing with a bar maid.
So perhaps the unlikely picture of New York’s elegant ball guests venturing onto the wilds of the dance floor while they struggle to count to three is entirely in keeping with the come-one-come-all traditions of the Viennese ball.
As in Vienna, the Viennese Opera Ball New York crowns the evening with a French quadrille at midnight, where couples in two lines perform a classic routine of steps with names like chaîne anglaise, or grosses balancé, to favorites from Strauss père et fils – even in Vienna, the aspirational world of the waltz happily played at speaking French.
By this time in the evening, most of the ball guests have lost their inhibitions and join in with good spirit. “They try to listen to the calls, and they do their best. But you know…”
What does it matter? Even in the best Viennese tradition, it’s all about having a good time.