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Authors: Andrew Riemer

Tags: #Biography/Autobiography

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In Vienna, in Budapest and Prague, and in the other large cities and provincial centres of the realm, going to the opera became a social ritual with its individual and characteristic codes and conventions. To attend the opera was a mark of cultivation, and also an indication of your standing within the complex hierarchy of bourgeois society. Gradations were subtle and seemingly infinite. A clear distinction existed between those who had taken out subscriptions and those who merely bought tickets for individual performances. The part of the house where patrons sat announced their social status to the world at large.

The night of the week for which you had obtained a subscription, the part of the house you occupied—whether in the stalls, or in one of the boxes—were both governed by social position. The choice of night and place was not a matter of money; you did not, as in those vulgar societies of the new world that the citizens of the Habsburg Empire looked on with such scorn, buy the most expensive seat you could afford. That might be done in one of the popular theatres where all was
show and flounce, where you could display your often newly found wealth. At the opera it was different, you sat in that part of the house to which your status entitled you. It was not a matter of prohibitions; no-one said, for instance, to my aunt's husband, who was a dealer in horseflesh, that he may not sit in one of the grand boxes of the second tier in Vienna or Budapest, though had he done so he would no doubt have received some very haughty looks from his neighbours. Rather, he knew that he would have been uncomfortable in close proximity to people who were above him on the social scale, who seemed to belong to another order of existence, and with whom he never had any dealings. His clothes, his physique, his manner and his deportment would have indicated that he was not one of ‘them'. He was far more comfortable in the third tier, or perhaps in the back of the stalls, among people of his own kind.

Decades after the disappearance of that world and those people, I wonder, as I sit on my uncomfortable stool in a side box on the third level, whether such distinctions still exist, whether time has swept away those elaborate social gradations, just as it seems to have transformed the royal box into a sort of ceremonial corral. And I also wonder what my family would have thought of one of their number occupying such an inconvenient place. Where did they sit when they went to the opera in Vienna? There is no way I shall ever find this out. Yet what little I know of that vanished world suggests that their proper place—like that of the dealer in horseflesh—was probably at the back of the stalls, or perhaps on the third tier, but, of course, in the front and not as far to the side as I am, here in Vienna, fifty or more years later, and in another sense at a distance of light-years away, wondering when the performance will start—it is already half past seven—and whether, with a bit of luck, the front seats are going to remain empty.

As the house lights are beginning to dim, the missing occupants arrive, squeezing through the narrow space between the chairs to occupy their seats at the front of the box. The
woman is young and elegantly dressed in a black gown with elaborate silver-thread embroidery. Her long blonde hair falls in a voluptuous curve down one side of her head. I notice that she wears very little jewellery but, like many European women, she uses what seems to me far too much perfume. Her escort is a good deal older. Stocky, bearded, with rimless glasses, he is wearing a black bow tie with a lounge suit. This seems to me a vulgar habit, but I have noticed during various visits to Germany and Austria that the practice is quite common: perhaps it represents a social convention I know nothing about.

They settle into their chairs—blocking entirely what little view of the auditorium there had been—just as the performance begins. I cannot actually see the curtain rising over the jaunty music that begins Puccini's sugary tale of midinettes, bohemians and consumption, but I can hear its swish, and I can hear that the quality of the orchestral sound has changed now that the large space of the stage is no longer covered by the heavy curtain. Standing on the footrest as my neighbour had demonstrated, it is possible to see about half of the stage, perspectives all askew, as the merry artists prance about on Christmas Eve, cold, hungry but indomitable in spirit. Often they disappear into the invisible corners of the stage, and I realise that it is far too uncomfortable to remain perched like a parrot on this footrest.

The couple in the front of the box do not seem to be paying much attention to the performance. She, it is true, has her face turned towards the stage, chin resting on her hand, but I do not think that she is taking any of it in. Her partner is sitting in such a way that the only thing he could be looking at is the brocaded partition that separates our box from its neighbour. He is entirely absorbed by planting light kisses on the lady's free hand and arm, which he is holding in a way I have seen shopkeepers and auctioneers holding for inspection large precious objects—vases, bronze figures—with reverence and with extreme care lest they fall and shatter.

Meanwhile on stage the poet is now alone, having promised presently to join his companions in Christmas merriment. The
moment has come for the arrival of Mimi the consumptive seamstress, and it is as well, therefore, to stand on one's perch again to catch a glimpse of her. She arrives with her candle: the singer possesses a fine voice and sings with considerable feeling and expression, but she is heavily built and not in the first flush of youth. It occurs to me that perhaps this is a performance better heard than seen, and I decide therefore to sit down once more, especially as the precariousness of my position could make me lose my balance and topple onto the pair in front.

They, for their part, are totally absorbed by their curious ceremony. She has not moved at all: impassive, abstracted, her face still turned towards the stage yet paying no attention to it, there is no movement of her head, no ripple in her flowing hair that would suggest that her eyes are following the singers as they move around the stage. Her lover, on the other hand, has progressed from her arm to her neck. He is still holding the arm as though it were some precious fragile object, a holy relic perhaps, and this obliges him to rise slightly from his chair so that his lips might touch her nape to place the lightest of kisses on it.

The lovers on stage have departed into the moonlight and the first act has come to an end. Applause and curtain calls. There is, however, no interval. By an imperial edict of the late nineteenth century, still honoured in republican Austria, performances at this theatre must conclude no later than 10.15 pm. For that reason, the four acts of
La Bohème
are performed here with only one interval. Nevertheless a pause is necessary while the elaborate scenery of this thirty-year-old production is changed. The house lights are raised to a dull glow, providing enough illumination for you to consult your programme or the contents of your bag, yet indicating clearly that it is not time to go out for a drink, to smoke or whatever other pursuit is appropriate for intervals during performances of opera. This is a time for polite, murmured conversation over the hammering and thumping coming from behind the curtain. The lovers in front of me do not converse but continue their
silent pantomime, a courtship ritual like those of insects that you can see, much magnified, on television. They are wholly absorbed by this ceremony, she in her stillness, he in whatever elaborate code governs the path his lips trace around her hand, arm, neck and shoulder. Dedicated to their ritual, they seem beyond place and time, trapped in a private and exclusive universe.

The second act begins, and I resume bobbing up and down. But I find that my attention is distracted more and more from festivities in the Café Momus. This is one of those plush productions from the sixties, when vast amounts of money could be spent by directors and designers to fill the ample stage of this theatre. Several square miles of Montmartre seem to have been transferred to the Vienna State Opera, at least as far as I can judge from the segment visible from my perch. A milling crowd fills the terraces of streets at the back, while at the front of the stage, outside the café, Mimi and the bohemians, Musetta and her wealthy admirer sing the familiar music. It is all very lively, colourful and not a little hectic. Yet I grow increasingly absorbed by the lovers sitting in front of me. They have now progressed to the next stage of their curious and mysterious ritual. The gentleman's left arm is now twined around the lady's back and, fingers clenched, he is stroking her cheek with his nails, while his right hand is placed firmly under her armpit. He now looks like a musician playing some exotic stringed instrument, except that no sound, no response emerges from it: she is sitting as before, frozen in her posture—a wax dummy, a mannequin, a plaything.

This pantomime continues throughout the performance. They are still at it when I return to the box after the interval; they do not cease for the melancholy parting of the lovers in a bitter, snowy dawn, or for their reunion in the artists' garret where they first met, or for Mimi's pathetic death in the arms of her lover. As before, nothing distracts them from their absorbed ecstasy. And then, at the end of the performance, as the applause begins, and as the singers, including the resurrected Mimi, come to take their bows in front of the plush curtain,
the couple rises briskly from their chairs and squeeze their way out as efficiently as they had when coming in.

Throughout the years I have lived in Australia, a land where musical culture, especially opera, is not very firmly entrenched, where audiences often seem unaware of the conventions of good manners and respect to which art claims to be entitled, I have often thought about these older societies where the arts are valued, where audiences are well-informed and well-mannered, where they will not start chatting about their problems with dishwashers or differentials at a moment of sublime beauty. Yet here, in the world that had become an object of veneration and longing throughout an antipodean exile, a quite different possibility now presents itself. Central Europe's much publicised respect for culture, its putting the things of the spirit and the mind well above the claims of Mammon may be one of the lies, one of the instances of dishonesty that have marred the political and social life of this part of the world. Opera as the communal symbol of a coherent society, where all respected their proper places in that order—whether in the stalls, the boxes or the balcony—yet came together under the one roof in celebration of the finer things of life, may have been no more than a ruse, a pretence to mask instincts which, in the final count, had little to do with those reaches of the mind. It is for that reason that the boxes in these theatres used to be furnished with a curtain that could be pulled down, obscuring the occupants in their cosy cubicle, and why in some of these theatres—as in the opera house in Budapest during my childhood—a couch was placed at the back of the box, well out of sight.

It is just after ten o'clock as I leave the theatre. Perhaps, it occurs to me, that imperial edict about the time by which performances must end had little to do with public convenience, with ensuring that patrons may catch the last horse-tram or whatever conveyance was in use at the end of the nineteenth century. It may well have been designed in order to allow ample time for silent lovers to reach the climax of their performance in some overfurnished apartment in the heart of the imperial city.


Vienna's churches echo with memories of the opera. Even the interiors of venerable gothic piles underwent thorough modernisation in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to transform them into God's theatres. The churches constructed in that epoch are often indistinguishable from the court theatres of the age. The Karlskirche, a basilica dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, ‘Reliever of the Plague,' the masterpiece of Fischer von Erlach, the virtuoso of the Austrian baroque, reveals its essentially theatrical design from the moment you set foot inside the porch. It is a miniature foyer—your eyes scan its wall and corners in search of the cloakroom and buffet. The church itself is embellished with every variety of coloured, veined and patterned marble. The high altar is displayed behind an ample proscenium arch, its curtain raised to reveal a stunning spectacle of marble, gold and bronze. The organ gallery, protected by an elaborately carved balustrade, occupies the position of a royal box. The architect's flamboyant manipulation of space, light, colour and texture contrives to suggest tiers of galleries and boxes rising in a semicircle around the altar.

The various strands that constitute the dreams and fantasies of this world come together more clearly in this place than anywhere else in the former imperial capital. Here distinctions between vulgarity and refinement, between the secular and the spiritual, between substance and shadow all vanish. A temple dedicated to the worship of an all-powerful Creator, before whom all human vanity and ingenuity must be humbled, is an extravagant display of the human arts of construction, decoration and illusion. It is a baroque Tower of Babel, a challenge to the Almighty to excel, in his own theatre of nature, the ingenuity and brilliance of the Habsburgs' architects, painters, sculptors and masons. The Karlskirche, like the other flamboyant instances of the South German baroque, seems more a monument to human megalomania than an expression of humility and adoration.

Religion and even spirituality in this world have little to do with the mysterious bonds of meditation and prayer that bind creature and Creator. There is not even the incense-heavy mystery of the churches of the eastern rite, enamelled saints and prophets glowing darkly in a vague, indistinct sea of burnished gold. Here everything is light, pomp and spectacle. The emphasis is always on communal celebration, not on private worship. God and the Emperor seem to have been on equal footing here, notwithstanding the pieties of humility God's anointed might have declared while kneeling before the shrine of the Invincible. Church and state merge within the operatic interiors of these buildings just as cathedral, palace and opera house define the cardinal points of the imperial capital.

BOOK: The Habsburg Cafe
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