In my mind, the kind of people that attended operas were those so rich that attendance was a weekly custom or a fortnightly outing, something that could perhaps be brought up in sophisticated conversation. I imagined that most of the attendees were past their forties, enjoyed dressing up glamorously and occasionally dragged their children/grandchildren along to show them what real music was like. On the other end of the spectrum, there might also be those who’ve saved up, worked hard to earn their tickets to the show, for the promise of sublime artistic spectacle. All these people, in their embroidered fabric seats, sitting behind their translator devices, programs and binoculars, caught in rapture in one of the most celebrated opera houses in the world, the Vienna State Opera.
The tickets I found online were all over a hundred and fifty euros – a price I would have paid, though in retrospect I am glad I didn’t have to. Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods) was showing, which is the final of the operatic drama quadrilogy Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung, or The Ring), a piece I had only read before yet thoroughly enjoyed. At the time I did not even know it was an opera. I was sixteen when I read it, a tattered voluminous book I had bought from a used-book store along with J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun, as well as his translation of Beowulf. As you can probably tell, I was going through a phase after having just finished The Lord of the Rings, a young reader absolutely ravenous for mythological literature: its demonstrations on an epic scale, of heroism, magic and violence.
While The Ring is magnificently written, a collection of brilliantly articulated scenes shot upon the screen of the reader’s imagination, to experience it in this way is to do so on a different plane to that for which it was written. The stage is where all the magic happens, where performer brings life to the sagas and affect audiences in a way that mere writing never could. I had never thought I would ever have to opportunity to watch any of Wagner’s operas, let alone in the Vienna State Opera (Weiner Staatsoper), but being so close to realising that dream, standing right next to the very building, it was difficult to come terms with not being able to fit a visit into our budget or schedule. We could not justify hundreds of euros spent when we were just at the commencement of our journey. In the end, Maddy and I both decided that we would have to put it off till the next time we visited Vienna, when we had more time and money.
But, as fortune would have it, one of the key pieces of advice given to us by our exuberant tour guide Christiane, on our walking the following day, was that standing places at the opera could be purchased for a mere €3-4. All we needed to do was go an hour and a half early and stand in line for the tickets. No sooner had the words left her mouth I was already vigorously nudging Maddy in the back with abject excitement. All that earned me was a brutal heel in the shin to curb my enthusiasm.
On the tour we were taken to gawk at people eating the best Wiener Schnitzel in the city according to her, Figlmüller, to touch the buttocks of a well-formed bronze sculpture of the fountain on Hoher Markt square, and through a quick history of Viennese coffee and the people’s obsession with it. Apparently, the beans and equipment were a takeaway from the abandoned Turkish siege camps after they were shown the finger by the protective forces that surrounded Vienna. The reason coffee became a significant part of Viennese culture was because it was made fashionable by the royals, a phenomenon that still occurs today. Soon coffee was found being consumed by people of different classes and trades, eventually leading to the emergence of different varieties of brewing and assembly, the most famous of these, Viennese melange.
Now there is some controversy as to its likeness to cappuccino. I suppose they are presented similarly and both are topped with milk foam, but the difference lies with the even incorporation creamy milk, below the foam and over a shot of espresso, sometimes with the addition of whipped cream. In essence they are close relatives, one cappuccino sprinkled with cocoa powder and the other with sweetened coffee beans. We kept meaning to visit one of the famous coffee houses in Vienna, Cafe Sperl most notably on the list, but instead had our first cups at Aida, which seemed to be an older Viennese equivalent of some of the popular café chains in the U.K.
Incidentally, we went there to pass the time before we could actually stand in line. We arrived an hour earlier than we had to line-up (2.5 hours before the show) so the closest coffee shop was the Aida across the road. Some might ask why we didn’t go to the famous Hotel Sacher, what with it being reasonably close by. My earnest answer to that would be that in my obsessively excited state, I wanted to be in sight of the opera ticket office.
Maybe it was just the fact that we had it at Aida, but the sachertorte we tried was nothing to write home about. Smooth chocolate icing encasing two layers of chocolate cake separated by an apricot jam, cohered more to Maddy’s preferences than it did mine. I left the cake to her and nibbled on the icing with the accompanying whipped cream. I loved the melange, the decadent creaminess of the top and the robust taste of the espresso. The next time we are in Vienna the first thing I will do is visit one of the famous places to see just how much better it could get.
When the time finally arrived, we ended up waiting in a line behind two girls we recognised from the tour that day. We did not notice them until they were being loudly accosted by an elderly security guard over wearing ripped jeans. It took a colleague of his to calm him down, and remind the man that it was the 21st century, and that it was fashionable for one to be dressed as such. Also, it did help that when she stood up she was able to make it seem that the rip was a mire slit. After we introduced ourselves, initiating the interaction with ‘Can you believe that guy?’, we bonded over the man’s anal retentiveness and the spectacle of a lady getting dragged out soon after, for trying to cut in the queue. She was sent to the back of the line, but by then it was one that extended outside the box office doors and far down the street. No sympathy here.
It was nice having people to chat with to pass the time before the show began. They were both from Chicago, one a nurse who travelled to Vienna to visit her friend and the other who was studying a History MA in Munich. They too were living at an Airbnb, so it was easy enough to get to talking about the experiences we had been having. It is weird to think that I had not heard of Airbnb until only recently, and suddenly everyone seemed to know about it. I suppose it is because I have not travelled around as much since getting into university, so I have not really been keeping track of the newest travel trends.
Although I do wish I could say that the opera was marvellous, I must admit that I was bored after three hours and Maddy after two. Despite the translator, the performance being in another language, having to stand up throughout, having to lean over the rails to catch a glimpse of parts of the stage, add to the tiredness of a full day of walking, did take their collective toll on us. The singing was beautiful though, and so was the music. I will say, however, that it is definitely worth going, if only for a few hours. I mean, you do only pay €3 which is a fantastic bargain.
For me, the highlight of the night was having to watch a man in a tuxedo scramble in search of his ringing phone that chose to go off during an intensely quiet and emotional scene between Sigurd and Brynhildr. The performers actually had to wait for it to stop before continuing, it was so cringe-worthy. People were leaning over the railings just to catch a glimpse of who it was, choruses of shushing and tutting ensued, and the ringtone continued on with its merry chime, with no sign of stopping – oh, it was surreal, a moment suspended in time. Normally I would have been equally annoyed and irritated with the man for disturbing a transcendent performance and bringing me back to earth. But I never left earth this time, and was barely able to stop dozing where I stood. I first found it funny, then I began to empathise with the poor man. He probably had one of the most embarrassing nights of his life.