Vienna has lots of universities, and that means lots of international students. So there are several groups around town who organize events for the international students. When I found one group on Facebook taking a tour of the Burgtheater, I knew I had to join.
The tour took us through the foyer, grand staircases, and honor hall of the theater. The building, like so many others in Vienna, was stunning. Both grand staircases had frescos on the ceilings painted by Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst, and Franz Matsch. Our tour guide was very informative, and gave us a great lesson in the history behind the Burgtheater. Which was, of course, not without a few scandalous stories.
Situated directly across from the Rathaus, the Burgtheater was the last of the grand buildings to be built on Ringstraße in 1888. But it had been in operation since 1776, after a royal decree by Empress Maria Theresa. It is one of the oldest theaters in Europe. The old building, next to the Hofburg palace, had once been a banquet hall. It was there that many famous Mozart operas were premiered, including Le nozze di Figaro in 1786 and Così fan tutte in 1790. Today it only produces plays, and is a strictly German-speaking theater, making it one of the most influential in the German-speaking world.
When it came time to build a new theater, Emperor Franz Joseph hired the two architects who had designed the Kunsthistorische Museum, Gottfried Semper and Karl von Hasenauer. This was a terrible idea. The two architects had quarreled all though their previous project, and were less than keen to work together again. Semper wanted to design a less ornamental theater where the plays could really stand out. Hasenauer was all about the red velvet and gold leaf. All they managed to work out was the design for the basic structure of the building before Semper left the project. Hasenauer was free to run wild with his over-the-top ideas. And so he did.
While Hasenauer’s interior design is gorgeous, he also built a lyre-shaped auditorium with a domed roof. This sounds like a great idea in theory. The lyre was the instrument played by the ancient Greeks while performing, but it also created pockets of seats with no view of the stage. Domed roofs are wonderful acoustically for musical performances, but when actors are speaking, the echoing makes them impossible to understand. Viennese society at the time were said to have come up with a saying to describe these shortcomings, “At the new parliament you can’t see, at the new opera house you can’t hear, and at the new theater you can’t see or hear.” In 1897, the auditorium had to be remodeled.
That architectural fail aside, the grand staircases were what really impressed me. Combine some truly fabulous gold and marble brilliance with a ceiling of masterpieces and you have something magnificent. Our guide gave us great details about the frescos. Each staircase, the Duke’s and the Emperor’s, have a series of paintings that depict the history of theater from ancient times to the 19th century.
One of the most interesting was by Gustav Klimt. It illustrates a staging of Antigone with a statue of Sophocles in the foreground. In front of the statue sits a woman dressed in white, staring out of the painting at the viewer. This woman was Katharina Schratt, the emperor’s mistress, and an actress at the Burgtheater. Now whenever the emperor visited the theater he would always be greeted by his lover.
To make the painting even better, the woman standing behind her was also an actress at the Burgtheater. The emperor had made advancements to her as well, but she had turned him down, saying, “My only love is my art.” Hence her looking up at the stage instead of at the emperor. I thought that was a great story of art reflecting life.
Every time I decide to tour another building in Vienna, there is always a twinge of fear that it won’t live up to expectations. How could it possibly be as beautiful or have as much history as all of the others? I may never be able to tell you how one city manages to fit so many splendors and stories into its boundaries, but Vienna never disappoints. My tour of the Burgtheater was fascinating. I would highly recommend it, especially for art history fans.