Looking at the front of the building from the Ring Road, one can see the original structure that has been preserved since 1869. The facades are decorated in Renaissance-style arches, and the veranda on the Ring Road side emphasizes the public character of the building.
The statues of the two riders on horseback were placed on the main facade of the loggia in 1876. They were created by Ernst Julius Hähnel, and represent Erato’s two winged horses that are led by »Harmony and the Muse of Poetry«.
On the arches above the veranda are Hähnel’s five bronze statues representing, from left to right: heroism, tragedy, fantasy, comedy, and love. On the right and left sides of the opera house are two fountains by Josef Gasser, representing two different worlds: on the left, music, dance, joy, and levity, and on the right, seduction, sorrow, love, and revenge.
The rear part of the two-piece building is clearly broader, and includes the stage and the surrounding rooms. The narrower front part contains the auditorium and the adjoining rooms that are open to the public. The different roof styles are remarkable: the vaulted roof over the stage and auditorium that towers above all the secondary rooms; the hipped roof of the transverse wings; the gable roof of the connecting structures between the transverse wings; and the French roofs of the towers.
The transverse wings, which stand perpendicular to the main building, originally served as driveways for horse-drawn carriages. At the front of the transverse wing, one finds the coats of arms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
When you enter through one of the main front doors of the lobby, which has been preserved in its original form, you get an immediate impression of the interior of the old opera house. Unaffected by the bombing were the whole main front, the main lobby, the central staircase, the Schwind Foyer and attached veranda, and the Tea Salon on the first floor. These have been preserved in their original state.
In the first section of the staircase, from the central entrance to the side boxes, hang two medallions designed by sculptor Josef Cesar, bearing the portraits of the designers, August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll. Above these, hang two paintings by Johann Preleuthner, symbolizing the ballet and the opera. Adorning the staircase is the ceiling painting »Fortuna, ihre Gaben streuend« (»Fortune, scattering her gifts«), from a design by Franz Dobiaschofsky. Also representing his work are the canvas paintings in the three arches, depicting the ballet, comic opera, and tragic opera. The allegorical statues designed by Josef Gasser embody the seven liberal arts: architecture, sculpture, poetry, dance, musical art, drama, and painting.
The historical highlight of the opera house is the Tea Salon, formerly the Emperor’s Salon, located between the staircase and the central boxes. The former Imperial box had been previously reserved for Vienna’s royalty and their guests. The freshly colored ceiling painting, »Die Musik auf Adlerschwingen« (»The Music on Eagles’ Wings«), by Karl Madjera, represents both lyrical and tragic music. The ceiling and walls are decorated with 22 carat gold leaf. One can also find sculptures by August La Ligne, wall embroideries from the Giani studio, and tapestries bearing the initials of Franz Joseph I.
The 120-meter long intermission halls of the State Opera connect to frame the main staircase. To the right of the stairs lies the Gustav Mahler Hall, which was, until May of 1997, called the Tapestry Hall. It was named because of the tapestries which adorn its wall, designed by Rudolf Eisenmenger, with motifs from Mozart's »Zauberflöte« (»Magic Flute«). Up to 1944, this room had been the director’s office, where all the directors, from Franz von Dingelstedt to Karl Böhm, presided. The room was named after Gustav Mahler on May 11, 1997 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his conducting debut at the opera house, which ultimately led to his appointment as director. Since then, a portrait by the artist R.B. Kitaj decorates the area where Mahler once worked.
A wall opening directly connects the Gustav Mahler Hall and the original entrance hall, formerly called the Promenade Hall. Today this magnificent hall is called the »Schwind Foyer« because of the sixteen sketched oil paintings by Moritz von Schwind decorating the hall. The paintings represent operas that were previously well known, but are rarely performed today.
The backstage area was newly constructed during the postwar period, using the existing foundations. Desperately needed rehearsal space was added to the original design, in addition to a cafeteria and several administrative rooms. Most of the premises, including the dressing rooms, were equipped with speakers and a video monitoring system, which allows the performers and stagehands to constantly observe the stage.
In the summer months from 1991 to 1993, and during a six month period in 1994, the Vienna State Opera experienced extensive renovation work. In order to create more precise and trouble-free backstage operations, hydraulically operated lifting platforms and electromechanical lifts were installed using the latest technology. The power supply to the State Opera, which was previously sourced by the Hofburg, is now operated by two substations. In addition to these measures, a new heating system, ventilation system, fire protection system and fire detection system were installed and remain completely invisible to the audience. Other auditorium renovations, such as painting and the installation of new box seating also took place.
During the six month period in 1994 when the State Opera was closed for renovations, a previously unused space was acoustically adapted into a beautiful new rehearsal hall. On September 1, 1995, this hall was named »Probebühne Eberhard Waechter« (Rehearsal Stage Eberhard Waechter), to keep the memory of the late singer and opera director alive.
On November 2, 2004, the largest rehearsal stage in the Vienna State Opera, was renamed »Carlos Kleiber Probebühne« (Rehearsal Stage Carlos Kleiber). In this way, the memory of the extraordinary conductor will be upheld.
In addition to these rehearsal stages, the State Opera now has three halls for ensemble rehearsals, with space for a choir and an orchestra, and also the Organ Hall on the sixth floor. The Organ Hall received its name from the 2,500 pipe organ that it houses. The Vienna State Opera is the world’s only opera house with such a large pipe organ. The hall is not only used for rehearsals, but also during performances where the sound will actually transfer into the auditorium. Other »live« acoustic impressions are created in the hall, such as the hammering of the anvils in Wagner's »Rheingold«. The State Opera additionally holds ten acoustically isolated individual practice rooms, and both a large and a small ballet rehearsal hall.
The central box gives a spectacular view of the horseshoe-shaped auditorium, which had to be completely rebuilt after the Second World War. Erich Boltenstern, a professor at the Technical University and the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, was awarded the privilege of redesigning the auditorium, the new staircases leading to the former third floor gallery, all public coat rooms, and the intermission halls in the upper levels. The architects Otto Prossinger, Ceno Kosak, and Felix Čevela took over the design of the intermission halls in the lower level. Van der Nüll and Sicardsburg’s original plan for the basic shape of the box theater with three tiers and two levels of open boxes (balcony and gallery) was retained.
The capacity of the auditorium is now 2,284 instead of the previous 2,881. It offers 1,709 seats, 567 standing spaces, 4 wheelchair spaces, and 4 wheelchair companion seats. The reduction of the number of spaces is due to stricter building codes and fire regulations. The reinforced concrete boxes were covered with wood for acoustic reasons, as the acoustics of the Vienna Opera House have always been of unprecedented brilliance. Some of the lateral upper tier seats with limited visibility were equipped with lamps for the purpose of reading the scores during the performance. The traditional colors of red, gold, and ivory were used for the auditorium, and the large central chandelier was replaced for safety by ring of built-in ceiling lights made of crystal glass. The glass ring weighs about 3,000 kilograms and uses 1,100 bulbs. It is 7 meters in diameter and 5 meters high; it has space for a lighting stand and corridors for maintenance of the system.
Rudolf Eisenmenger designed the iron curtain that separates the audience from the stage. It shows a scene from Gluck's opera »Orpheus and Eurydice«. In the spring of 1998, the State Opera commissioned the group »museum in progress« with creating a new picture for each season. This requires a specially developed process, which both guarantees the preservation of Eisenmenger's image, and shows the optimal quality of the newly created contemporary work. With the creation of contemporary museum space inside the Vienna State Opera, this traditional house shows its openness towards progressive artistic developments.
The orchestra pit is the nightly home to musicians from one of the most famous ensembles in the world: the members of the State Opera Orchestra, from which musicians for the Vienna Philharmonic are recruited. The orchestra pit, with 123 square meters of space, holds approximately 110 musicians.
For fire protection, there are three iron curtains: the main curtain which separates the stage from the auditorium, and two more to fireproof the side stages and the backstage. For additional protection, the previous wooden ceilings were replaced by reinforced concrete slabs. In place of the previous slate roof coupled with wooden shingles, a new fireproof, waterproof and windproof roof was built. This copper skin over a thin reinforced concrete shell was the original desire of architect Van der NüIl, and it was finally brought to fruition many years later.
Terraces were added on the top floor, creating not only additional escape routes, but also outdoor intermission areas during the warmer months.
For the 23nd »Safety Curtain« at the Wiener Staatsoper, the jury (Daniel Birnbaum, Hans Ulrich Obrist and newly also Bice Curiger) selected the internationally renowned US-American artist Carrie Mae Weems. Her work »Queen B (Mary J. Blige) « can be seen by the audience from 7 September 2020 until early June before the start of the performances, during the intermissions and at the end of the performances. »Safety Curtain« is an exhibition series conceived by museum in progress (mip.at) in cooperation with Wiener Staatsoper that has been transforming the safety curtain of the main stage into an exhibition space for contemporary art since 1998. The large-format pictures (176 square metres) are fixed on the safety curtain with magnets.
On the occasion of the project, a limited and signed edition by Carrie Mae Weems is available at museum in progress. By purchasing the edition, art and opera enthusiasts will be making an important contribution to the continuation of the »Safety Curtain« exhibition series. Subscriptions to museum in progress until 7 September under: mip.at/shop/mjb-reflection bzw. firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the display windows of PRIVAT BANK of the Raiffeisenlandesbank Oberösterreich in Vienna (Operngasse 2) museum in progress has been presenting a supplementary exhibition by Carrie Mae Weems since 4 September 2020. The exhibition consists of billboards from the artist’s large-scale public awareness campaign »Resist Covid –Take 6!«, which is dedicated to the aim of sensitising the overproportionally affected demographic groups with simple protection methods from infection with the coronavirus.
Carrie Mae Weens: »Queen B (Mary J. Blige)« 2020/21
© Katharina Schiffl
About CARRIE MAE WEEMS
In her work Carrie Mae Weems explores the realities of black life worldwide. Thereby, she examines relationships in families, cultural and societal identities, representation, sexism, political systems and the consequences of power. In several decades she created a rich and complex work. Her preferred media are photography, text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation and video.
Currently, Weems is engaged with her large-scale public awareness campaign »Resist Covid –Take 6!« with the aim of sensitising the overproportionally affected black US population with simple protection methods from infection with the coronavirus. »Ms. Weems is what she has always been, a superb image maker and a moral force, focused and irrepressible.« (Holland Cotter, New York Times)
Carrie Mae Weems (*1953, Portland, Oregon) was the first Afro-American woman to get a solo exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in 2014. Her numerous exhibitions include amongst others: Tate Liverpool (2009); Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo, Sevilla (2010); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012); Frist Art Museum, Nashville (2012); Prospect.3, New Orleans Triennale (2014); Triennale di Milano (2015) and Milwaukee Art Museum (2019). The artist lives in Syracuse, New York.
Since 1998 »Safety Curtains« have been realised by the following artists: Kara Walker (1998/99), Christine and Irene Hohenbüchler (1999/2000), Matthew Barney (2000/01), Richard Hamilton (2001/02), Elmgreen & Dragset (2002/03, Komische Oper Berlin), Giulio Paolini (2002/03), Thomas Bayrle (2003/04), Tacita Dean (2004/05), Maria Lassnig (2005/06), Rirkrit Tiravanija (2006/07), Jeff Koons (2007/08), Rosemarie Trockel (2008/09), Franz West (2009/10), Cy Twombly (2010/11), Cerith Wyn Evans (2011/12), David Hockney (2012/13), Oswald Oberhuber (2013/14), Joan Jonas (2014/15), Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster (2015/16 and 2019 at the Opéra Théâtre Metz), Tauba Auerbach (2016/17), John Baldessari (2017/18), Pierre Alechinsky (2018/19) and Martha Jungwirth (2019/20).
The exhibition series »Safety Curtain« is a project of museum in progress in cooperation with the Vienna State Opera and the Bundestheater-Holding. In 2020 the project was kindly made possible by the Christian Zeller Privatstiftung. Additional support: PRIVAT BANK of the Raiffeisenlandesbank Oberösterreich, ART for ART and Foto Leutner. Media partner: Die Furche. Courtesy: Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.