Authors: Andrew Riemer
Now, after what has obviously been the proper lapse of time, the waitress excuses herself and shuffles over to take my order. I ask for coffee, knowing that you mustn't immediately specify which of the many kinds of coffee available in these establishments you would prefer. Instead, it is necessary to engage in an elaborate ceremony of negotiations, eliminating one by one the various optionsâiced or hot, long black or short, with warm milk or cold, with whipped cream or with brandy or rum, or perhaps that peculiar mixture of coffee and drinking chocolate that some people in this part of the world seem to enjoy so much.
Having satisfactorily concluded these negotiations, she now asks me, with a formal smile, what I would like to eat. Nothing, I reply, only coffee. The disappointment on her face is unmistakable. She gestures towards the glass-fronted counter. Can't she tempt me with one of her wonderful cakes or pastries? And, lowering her head, dropping her voice to a
whisper, she suggests a piece of her
. This, she assures me, is
, the real thing, the genuine article, made in the houseâI won't find any better in all of Vienna. It seems churlish to refuse. As she disappears behind the counter to draw the coffee and to dispense the cake, I fancy that I detect a look of triumph on the faces of her customers, who had suspended their litany of woes to observe our negotiations. This foreigner will now find out what a real
tastes like, their expressions seem to suggest.
Every cafÃ© in Vienna serves a chocolate cake of that name. Yet not many years ago the world's press carried reports of a complicated court battle between the owners of Demel's, the most sumptuous of Vienna's cafÃ©s, and the management of the Hotel Sacher over their respective rights to use that most distinguished appellation. Commonsense would have suggested, of course, that the hotel's richly brocaded and outrageously expensive cafÃ© should have the sole right to that name. The litigation was concerned, however, not with commonsense but with the complicated toing-and-froing many years ago of pastrycooks between cafÃ© and hotel. Who invented
the learned judges were asked to determine. Further, does the inventor retain the right to the name, or does it rest with the place of invention? I cannot remember the outcome of this complex legal process, which amused the international press for a week or two before some other quaint and trivial story came to occupy its attention. Perhaps, it occurs to me, the case is still
, pending a determination which could well establish a precedent of great culinary import.
What is perhaps most surprising is the ordinariness of that disputed delicacy. Wherever
is served in Vienna, it is always the same: a dense chocolate-flavoured cake, with a trickle of jam in the middle, glazed with a thin layer of shiny chocolate. To my possibly unrefined palate, this fabled confection seems indistinguishable from the products of those packets of cake-mix that crowd the shelves of supermarkets. Can this be the cause of such heated litigation? Is it for this that cafÃ©s all over the city risk goodness-knows-what fines and
penalties as they continue to tempt you with their own
version of the famous confection? Perhaps
is charged with a mystic significance that we outsiders cannot comprehend. That may be the reason for the fierce rivalry between Demel's and Sacher's, why countless establishments flaunt legal restraints, finding a characteristically Kakanian way around the âHands Off!' sign.
The waitress returns with my coffee and a slice of cake. She places these offerings on the marble table-top with ceremonial deference, and, as though this were one of those vast crowded cafÃ©s where once in a blue moon even the best of waiters might get into a muddle, announces one black coffee and one piece of
âwith cream, she adds. I lift the fork to taste a morsel. The elderly ladies have stopped talking again, and are looking at me with almost coquettish smiles in anticipation of the sensation am I about to experience. The taste is indeed wonderful, a rich, nutty, chocolate substance, much more moist and aromatic than such cakes usually are. It is, moreover, quite unlike any
I have ever been served in the cafÃ©s of this city.
It would be inaccurate to say, though, that I had never tasted anything like it in my lifeâas the coy smiles of those ladies seem to be suggesting. This confection seems identical to a cake my mother used to bake, the recipe for which was lost when she died, consisting, I recall, of eggs, chocolate, ground hazelnuts but containing no flour. She always insisted that this was the real
, a recipe given to her by the Ursuline nuns of Sopron who had educated her. She couldn't remember how those supposedly devout and otherworldly women came by that closely guarded secretâwhich even the two warring establishments, Sacher's and Demel's, seem to have lost judging by their contemporary offeringsâbut she maintained, to the end of her life, that the wonderful cake she used to serve in Sydney, in a world seemingly light-years removed from Sopron and Vienna, was the only real, genuine, indeed
, version of the celebrated delicacy. Sitting in this homely cafÃ© in a sidestreet of the old city, savouring the wonders of what is (I
am persuaded) obviously the genuine article, smiling at the two ladies who look as if they are about to burst into applause, I experience a wonderful sense of contentment, even perhaps of peace.
The afternoon is wearing on. More customers arrive, all elderly, stocky and short, overweight because they have indulged no doubt in too much genuine
. They greet everyone politely, smiling, sometimes shaking hands, and dispose themselves at the remaining unoccupied tables. The place is positively buzzing: the waitress is obviously going to be rushed off her fur-clad feet for the next hour or two.
Busts of Mahler and Richard Strauss stare suspiciously at each other across the vast marble-clad foyer of the Vienna State Opera. The Bohemian Jew turned Catholic and the Bavarian who fashioned several heady, though entirely spurious musical fantasies of Vienna, were both directors of this great institution. That position is the most glamorous public office in Vienna. Its incumbent is perhaps even more respected than the prelate who presides over that other great theatrical establishment, the cathedral, situated at the other end of the KÃ¤rtnerstrasse. Between them, cathedral and opera house define the polarities of Austrian culture as it was espoused by the citizens of Kakania despite the many differences of race, religion and nationality. For me, the descendant of those people, it is unthinkable to visit Vienna without at least looking inside the Stephansdom and, more importantly still, without going to the opera.
Cathedral and opera house were both meticulously rebuilt after the disaster of the Second World War. The hordes of tourists rolling like a relentless wave from one to the other marvel at the preservation of anything so ancient as that venerable house of worship and at the spick-and-span freshness of the century-old theatre. Yet both are restorations, nostalgic
reconstructions, not so much of the physical buildings that stood on these sites, as of the dreams and aspirations of a sentimentalised past. The present theatre, though somewhat different from the original structure, preserves the social, cultural and even spiritual assumptions on which the regal or ducal opera houses of Europeâfrom London to Moscow, from Stockholm to Lisbonâwere based. In its present incarnation, the Vienna State Opera House is as much an essay in nostalgic kitsch as the tawdry tourist wares displayed in booths and shop windows everywhere in the city. When the reconstruction of the theatre commenced in the early 1950s, certain modifications were made to the design to improve the backstage facilities and to ensure the greater safety of patrons in case of fire. Almost nothing was done, however, to the auditorium or the public spaces of this monument to alter the concept of a theatre as it evolved in the seventeenth century.
The only ticket I could afford for tonight's performance of
is in a side box in the third tier, just below the level of the balcony. Moreover, my place is in the second row of chairsâthose in the front row are much more expensive. I find that it is not so much a chair as a high stool with a footrest. It affords an excellent view of the boxes on the other side of the auditorium, but of precious little else. I notice, however, that the front places are still empty, even though it is only five minutes before the performance is supposed to begin. Meanwhile the young woman sitting beside me shows me how to stand on the footrest and thus obtain a partial view of the stage. It becomes clear to me that this can be sustained only in short bursts.
I am obviously suffering from the inconvenience of occupying a lowly place in the elaborate hierarchy of a theatre lovingly rebuilt by an apparently democratic state in imitation of the royal theatres of a vanished worldâexcept that the royal box has been supplanted by a sort of enclosure, capable of containing a clutch of cabinet-ministers and their consorts. When the theatre opened its doors for the first time, it was, of course, the Imperial and Royal Court Opera House, the chief
theatre of the Habsburg realm. Though capable of accommodating some 1500 patrons (most, though by no means all, seated), and requiring, even at that time, the patronage of a bourgeois (in many cases Jewish) public, this theatre was nevertheless conceived as if it were the plaything of an absolute monarch. The best place in the auditorium, indeed the only place affording a full view of the stage spectacle, was the royal box, at the centre of the horseshoe-shaped auditorium, and at a height mathematically determined to allow its occupants to savour the full effect of perspective scenery. Every other place in the house is inferiorâthe farther seats are removed both vertically and horizontally from this cultural holy of holies, the more their inferiority is emphasised by the restricted view of the stage they offer.
Royal entertainments, practised in most of the European courts since the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, set the pattern for the architecture of European opera theatres. All were built on a horseshoe-shaped pattern which made the occupant of the ceremonial boxâking, duke or electorâthe centre of a cultural ritual. The lines of perspective converged on his august person. The entire spectacleâthe ceremony of artâdrew its sustenance from his presence. Opera became an expression of royal power and therefore (at least in the rhetoric of absolutism) the mirror of a nation's greatness.
Opera houses are placed at the focal points of those cities of Europe where dreams of political power were expressed as celebrations of art. The more absolutist the rÃ©gime, the more prominence these secular shrines tend to occupy. Garnier's pompous edifice in Paris dominates a conjunction of boulevards and streets; even now, more than a century after its construction, one is aware that streets, houses and ways of life were obliterated to make room for this statement about the grandeur not so much of France, as of Napoleon Ill's vision of a France ruled by an Emperor, the autocrat in a frock-coat. Paris's new âdemocratic' Opera de la Bastille, erected with obvious though perhaps unconscious symbolism in the Place de la Bastille, a reminder of the many varieties of absolutism,
betrays an equal sense of impositionâthe destruction of the mean, the decrepit and the familiar to make room for that grandiose emblem of the republic of
. Only in London, a city always suspicious of its sovereigns' claims of absolutism, is the opera house tucked away in a sidestreet near what was until very recently a vegetable market.
In Vienna the opera house stands at the very centre of the great semicircle of Habsburg boulevards known as the Ringâwhile, on another plane of urban perspectives, it stands opposite the cathedral, linked to it by the city's, perhaps Europe's, most elegant and expensive thoroughfare. Empire, Mammon and the Church provide the reference points for this temple, which serves more than the worship of Polyhymnia, muse of the sublime hymn. It is the focus of ambitions and dreams of power, a substantial symbol of the reconciliation between absolutism and the people, and an insistence that the state is built not on subjection and servitude but on willing submission. The Father-Emperor, in his royal box at the point where the lines of perspective meet, may thus be confirmed as guardian and protector, the source of both glory and goodness. In one sense, the spectacles of nobility and honour (the conventional subjects of eighteenth-century
) were addressed to him and him alone. The sovereign looks upon the magnanimity of Idomeneo or the clemency of Titus, while Idomeneo and Titus, (and countless other pious, magnanimous and clement monarchs) lift their eyes towards him, and discover their likeness there. They see and are observed by their heir and epitome in full face; the lesser beings, ranged around royalty, may catch no more than sidelong glimpses of glory and magnificence. It would not be seemly for such creatures to look upon full majesty. The lowest of the low, at the very back and sides of the highest gallery, may count themselves lucky to be vouchsafed a vision of the laurel crown on the head of Clemency or Magnanimity.
By the time that this theatre was built and the Central European mania for opera entered my family's life-stream, such baroque exultation had long become a thing of the past. The
stage was occupied not with spectacles of heroic altruism but with the indiscretions of the boudoir and the treacheries of lust and passion. Yet inside the gilt auditoria of the opera houses of the Habsburg world, the hierarchical stratification of the eighteenth century persisted, though in a significantly altered guise. Although these theatres were still known as royal or imperial during the closing years of the nineteenth century, when my grandmother, the owner of the silver Ferris wheel, went on her honeymoon trip to Vienna, ordered the heavy furniture which forms one of my last material links with that world, and accompanied her new husband to the opera, they depended on the patronage of the metropolitan bourgeoisie to enable them to perform night after night throughout a lengthy season. During the great age of Viennese opera from the 1880s until the years of the Great War, the bourgeoisie, and perhaps even more importantly the Jewish bourgeoisie, provided sustenance for and determined (to a large extent) the aesthetic policies of such institutions.