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.
After the bombing of the Vienna State Opera on March 12, 1945, the removal of the rubble began during the war, followed by securing work and static investigations as well as the lengthy clean-up and restoration work, which took several years due to the shortage of building materials and labor. Like St. Stephen's Cathedral, the State Opera, one of Austria's most important identity-forming monuments, was the first to be rebuilt. In 1946, the advisory Opera Building Committee was set up for this purpose, and in 1947 the Reconstruction Fund. After two competitions to obtain artistic designs for the reconstruction of the auditorium - an open ideas competition, which met with little approval, and an invited competition - the decision was in principle made in favor of the building program that the state construction management had already worked out in a basic design in 1946 before the competitions. In 1949, Erich Boltenstern received the commission for the overall artistic direction of the reconstruction as well as for the design of the auditorium according to the earlier model; the architects Ceno Kosak and Otto Prossinger / Fritz Cevela were entrusted with the redesign of today's Gustav Mahler Hall and the Marble Hall.
While it was assumed that the auditorium designed by Eduard van der Nüll and August Sicard von Sicardsburg in the 1860s would be reconstructed almost true to the original - including the technically unnecessary gallery columns that obstruct the view - Erich Boltenstern was able to persuade the architects over the course of the years that the two tiers should be designed without columns. With its red-gold-ivory color scheme, the auditorium strongly recalls the design of the 19th century; at the same time, there is a simplification of the design of the boxes, a reduction and simplification of the ornamentation and sculptural decoration, and a complete renunciation of a painterly design. Boltenstern himself speaks of a "solution outside the contemporary in modern architecture" and complains that a stronger abstraction of the ornamental was rejected by the client.
Together with the architect, Robert Obsieger developed the decorative elements consisting of a few basic elements (profiled leaves and bars), while Hilda Schmid-Jesser, the only artist involved in the reconstruction, was responsible for the final version. Through this reduced formal language, the room loses some of its former historicist heaviness, but retains its representative character. The reconstruction of La Scala in Milan in 1946 served as a model for the decision against a new design and in favor of reconstruction according to the old model. As with the court opera building of the 19th century, the reconstructed opera can also be spoken of as a total work of art, since in addition to the architecture, all the furnishings such as chairs, benches, desks, buffets, coat racks, lamps, mirrors, and even the door handles and music stands originate from "one" hand. Here, too, the respective architects were responsible for "their" rooms, and the same applies to the choice of artists for the painterly, sculptural and handicraft decoration. Erich Boltenstern had invited Wander Bertoni for two reliefs in a foyer and Giselbert Hoke for the two monumental murals in the smoking rooms, the ballroom by Otto Prossinger /Felix Cevela was furnished by Heinz Leinfellner with large-scale marble works, while Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger provided the designs for the tapestries in the Gobelin Hall, today the Gustav Mahler Hall. In the competition held especially for the Iron Curtain - there were four rounds of competition with a total of 16 artists - Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger also prevailed and was able to execute a traditional, rather unimaginative, antique-style design (the Bild Telegraph spoke of "Orpheus and Eurydice in KdF style"). The artist's closeness to National Socialism and, above all, the way those responsible for reconstruction at the time dealt with this circumstance finally led, more than 40 years later, to an exhibition project in which the Iron Curtain of 1955 serves as a temporary image carrier for annually changing curtain designs by contemporary artists. While the Gobelin Hall, designed by Ceno Kosak and furnished with Eisenmenger's tapestries, with its effortful representational architecture seems rather to be connected to the architecture of the past years of National Socialism ("civil servant baroque"), the reconstruction of the auditorium by Erich Boltenstern as well as the Marble Hall by Otto Prossinger / Felix Cevela can be described as of high quality, but stylistically rather conservative, belonging to moderate modernism. Erich Boltenstern cannot be counted among the great modernists of 20th century architecture, but comparisons with his contemporary works show that it was above all the artistic will of the client and not that of the architect that prevailed here. Nevertheless, and this is probably Boltenstern's real achievement, the Vienna State Opera, when we enter it today, conveys the feeling of a cohesive whole, where old and new areas merge harmoniously without much fuss.
Anna Stuhlpfarrer (abridged from: Vienna State Opera, The Reconstruction 1945-1955, Molden Verlag, Vienna, 2019.
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.
Cao Fei – The New Angel
Safety Curtain 2022 / 23
»My digital avatar China Tracy lives in the virtual world. In the opera house, the huge portrait resembles a quiet sculpture. China Tracy is silent and compassionate, as a Buddha statue. She silently observes the real world through the heavy layer of the stage curtain, without giving any answer.’«(Cao Fei)
A face appears in the proscenium. This face belongs to “China Tracy” – artist Cao Fei’s avatar, the mirror image of her alter ego. China Tracy’s digital dermis gathers the visual stereotypes of a “female warrior”: her double topknot is inspired by Street Fighter’s Chun-Li, as she restores the armor on the female gynoid Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with pixels. Even so, China Tracy is not born to fight, nor is she an “honest” simulation of Cao Fei in real life. After all, she was created in Second Life, which is a virtual world without plots, choreographed actions nor missions, neither gravity (you can adjust it) nor (even virtual) death are certain. As a “resident” of such virtual realm, China Tracy wanders in the user-content-driven virtual world, drifting and teleporting between numerous virtual cities, embodying an experience outside conventional spatial dimensions through her (virtual) corporeal linkage with Cao Fei’s fingers on the computer keyboard. China Tracy’s embodied experience was transformed by Cao Fei into a (computer-graphics-engine-based) machinima video entitled iMirror, which premiered at the 52th Venice Biennale, where audiences interacted with China Tracy in a multi-domed, inflatable pavilion, gazing at each other at the relative cavity between the virtual and actual, like stars blinking at the edge of local bubbles in the universe.
The creation of China Tracy annunciated the birth of RMB City (2009–2011), a virtual city built by Cao Fei in Second Life that collages the fragments of Chinese urbanscapes onto a virtual platform, weaving the scraps of speedy urbanization in real life into a multi-point perspective scroll. “People’s Palace”, the core architecture in RMB City, resembles a hybrid of the Great Hall of the People and the watchtowers of Tiananmen in Beijing, with its lower half occupied by a waterpark. On the virtual city’s shore, a rusted “Bird’s Nest” (Beijing National Stadium by Herzog & de Meuron, built for the 2008 Olympics) rests half-sunken in a digital sea, China Central Television HQ designed by Rem Koolhaas floats in the Truman-show-ish digital blue sky… RMB City condenses China’s landmarks, urban spaces, and social realities that interweave exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, and contradictions. Even so, it is never a digital utopian/dystopian doppelgänger of the country’s real world built on teleological distance. Cao Fei points out that RMB City “doesn’t restore the full present, nor does it recall our reminiscence of the past. It’s a mirror that partially reflects; we see where we were coming from, discover some of the ‘connections’ that fill the pale zone between the real and the virtual.” RMB City’s liminality between actual and virtual is partly presented by its temporality: its time zone is set on Pacific Standard Time, sunrises and sunsets repeat regularly as if in actual life – but in every four hours instead of twenty-four, and the moon there is always full. It is all about the speculative realities that may not be consonant with our everyday life.
RMB City officially closed in 2011, since then it vanished on Second Life and became an invisible city haunting with images and texts on the Internet and exhibition copies in museums. China Tracy has not yet made her exit, existing as the Cheng Huang (the protective god of ancient Chinese cities, a deification of city walls and moats) of RMB City, holding a two-way mirror between the actual and virtual, denoting and connecting the two coexisting realms. While in our real life, the “pale zone” between the virtual and the actual grows and concepts for a metaverse are being developed, an RMB City can be everywhere.
Walter Benjamin describes the angel in Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus as one that faces the past and whose back is turned to the future, where a heavenly storm propels towards him. China Tracy is a new angel of our time, envisaging the eternal present where events appear, burgeon, and collapse simultaneously in real-time communications; while being pushed to the dark void where the speculative futures, embodied by the bygone RMB City, have not yet come to light. Michel Serres, in “La Légende des anges” (Angels, a Modern Myth, 1993), connects angels with “message-bearing networks” in our present days, in which we are all messengers. Serres noted that the angels may veil themselves behind “elementary fluxes and movements that made up our world”. China Tracy is being concealed by an image – her own image, blanched in a pale monochrome gray – one of the major elements in our lives as cyborgs connected to electronic devices, with information being coded, uncoded, and recoded through us. China Tracy could be anyone of us, and RMB City can be any in-between space contouring between the virtual and actual.
In RMB City’s Manifesto, China Tracy greets the visitors with a conversation from Italo Calvino’s “Il castello dei destini incrociati” (The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1973), in which narratives are facilitated with the images on Tarot cards. The quoted dialogue is between a youth who rose to the top of a staircase in a city and met a crowned angel: “Is this your city?” asked the youth, and the angel answered: “It’s yours.”
The exhibition series ‘Safety Curtain’ is a project by museum in progress in cooperation with the Vienna State Opera and the BundestheaterHolding.
Project partner: Blue Mountain Contemporary (BMCA)
Support: ART for ART, Hotel Altstadt, Johann Kattus, Foto Leutner and PRIVAT BANK der Raiffeisenlandesbank Oberösterreich
Media partner: Die Furche and Die Presse
Jury: Daniel Birnbaum, Bice Curiger, Hans-Ulrich Obrist
Text: Venus Lau, Translation: Brigitte Willinger
Management: Kaspar Mühlemann Hartl, Alois Herrmann
Copyright: Cao Fei and museum in progress.
Concept: Kathrin Messner, Joseph Ortner, museum in progress
Cao Fei (*1978, Guangzhou) presented her works in countless exhibitions worldwide, including: Centre Pompidou (Paris), Fondation Louis Vuitton (Paris), Guggenheim Museum (New York), K21 (Düsseldorf), MAXXI (Rome), MoMA PS1 (New York), Mori Art Museum (Tokyo), Palais de Tokyo (Paris), Para Site (Hong Kong), Serpentine Galleries (London), UCCA Center for Contemporary Art (Beijing) and Vienna Secession. She has participated in the Aichi Triennale, Venice Biennale, Sydney Biennale, Istanbul Biennale, and Yokohama Triennale, and has been awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, among others. In her videos, digital works, photographs, and installations, she explores the effects of economic growth, urban development, and rapid globalization. Many of the artist's works explore the impact of automation, virtual realities, and hyper-urbanization on human existence, raising questions about memory, history, consumerism, and social structures. Cao Fei lives in Beijing.
»Iron Curtain« 2022/2023 is supported by: BLUE MOUNTAIN CONTEMPORARY ART (BMCA), ART for ART, Johann Kattus, Foto Leutner and PRIVAT BANK of Raiffeisenlandesbank Oberösterreich. Media partners: Die Furche and Die Presse.
The competition for the Iron Curtain in 1954
While Erich Boltenstern's new auditorium was generally well received by opera audiences from Germany and abroad as well as by experts from the day of the opening on November 5, 1955, and even the occasional criticism faded away within a short time, Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger's Iron Curtain remains controversial to this day and the cause of sometimes impulsive disputes. This is due to the decision at the time in favor of Eisenmenger's restorative, traditional-figural design coupled with the painter's persona. As was so often the case in post-war Austria, his National Socialist past seemed to have been forgotten just a few years after the war - after his two-year ban from the profession was lifted in 1947: his membership in the NSDAP from 1933, his involvement in the "League of German Painters" and the "Combat League for German Culture" in the 1930s, his function as president of the Vienna House of Artists 1939-1945, and his propaganda paintings for Vienna City Hall and the Reich Workers' Service building during the years of National Socialist rule. The network he had built up over the years, including the Gesellschaft bildender Künstler - Künstlerhaus, helped him to obtain important commissions in the late 1940s and early 1950s, such as the murals for the Künstlerhaus cinema, and "Eisenmenger also had a strong lobby, led by representatives of the Ministry of Trade and Reconstruction, behind him when the Iron Curtain was commissioned" (Veronica Floch). Already in 1951 he had followed the appointment to the Institute for Drawing and Painting at the Vienna University of Technology, and one year after the Iron Curtain he received the Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art I. Class. Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger's career was no exception; it is much more exemplary of how Austria dealt with its past and the half-hearted attempts at denazification after the Second World War. The year 1945 did not bring a radical new beginning; rather, the period was defined by a culturally conservative striving for continuity. "There was no break after 1945, but continuity. Immediately after the end of the war, the intellectual climate improved, but from 1948 on, 'old rope teams' and their National Socialist and conservative tendencies were able to regain power and influence. Once again, modernity had fallen into an outsider position." (Peter Weibel).
Erich Boltenstern's suggestion to choose a purely decorative solution "and thus to avoid all discussions" was rejected by the ministry with the argument that this could lead to being confronted with the accusation of a lack of ideas. Section head Föhner from the Ministry of Commerce emphasized "that one wanted to accommodate modernity, but on the other hand, with consideration for the Viennese public, which is still strongly associated with the image of the former opera, one must strive for a solution that corresponds to the traditional character of the house, which was also adhered to in the structural reconstruction." This statement specifically sums up the fundamental ideology of the responsible ministry and explains both the decision in favor of Erich Boltenstern as architect for the reconstruction and that in favor of the curtain design by Rudolf Hermann Eisenmenger.
The course of the competition with four rounds and a total of 78 designs by 16 artists, the struggle for a result, and the way the decision was made were anything but flawless. That this, as well as the changing jury, triggered a correspondingly sharp and persistent criticism in the media, regardless of its orientation, is therefore not surprising. The works of important representatives of Austrian modernism such as Fritz Wotruba, Wolfgang Hutter and Herbert Boeckl, but also the abstract compositions of Georg Jung contradicted the conservative view of art of the responsible ministry officials from the very beginning. In the end, the jury had decided in favor of the traditional and the proven rather than the new in art.
Anna Stuhlpfarrer (abridged from: Vienna State Opera, The Reconstruction 1945-1955, Molden Verlag, Vienna, 2019.