Tickets To Magic

Scores of People Waited Outisde in the Winter Cold For the Moment When the Curtain Would Go Up

The Vienna State Opera: “Few people talk the same way about the movies” | Photo: eastboca.net / Creative Commons

It was a windy but cozy mid-January evening, one of the last before the merciless onslaught of winter finally descended. As I strolled down the Kärtner Ring with a friend towards the Wiener Staatsoper, the familiar biting Viennese wind whipped around the corner announcing the changing season.

At the Opera, scores of people in winter coats were standing by the entrances, nervously shifting from one foot to the other, although it was still an hour and fifteen minutes before curtain. Time was passing, and frustration was everywhere.

They had been standing in the line for hours, a diverse lot: the Viennese seemed impatient, even though they were used to waiting – nervous shuffling, and the shaking of heads giving them away. The tourists, on the other hand, seemed pretty excited, laughing and looking around with eyes wide. For them, this was a rare opportunity to visit the world renowned Vienna State Opera.

A friend of mine and I decided to leave the impatient mass and head to the ticket office for the coming shows. We observed the crowd for a while, waiting for a perfect moment to start a conversation. Soon we heard the familiar incantations of English and approached an elderly couple from the UK. The gentleman was George Anthony Parson from London, in Vienna with his wife.

“This is the first time we have been to Austria and we are very happy to be here,” he said enthusiastically.  They go to the opera at least twice a month in the UK and were buying tickets for Verdi’s Falstaff.

Verdi was one of Mr. Parson’s favorites. “When I saw that Falstaff was on the schedule, I couldn’t pass up the chance.”

The next person we encountered was Yukari Kawabashi, a talkative 25-year-old woman from Sendai, Japan, bundled up in brightly colored scarf. She is a “huge fan” of classical music, German expressionist painting and the beautiful city of Vienna. The current Leopold Museum exhibition had brought her here, but a visit to the Opera was too tempting to pass up. She visits Europe every two years… and we had trouble getting a word in edgewise. However, the next few sentences were really interesting.

She was buying tickets for Puccini’s La Boheme, an opera she likes very much. But she regretted that there were no “serious” operas playing at the moment.

That stopped us. What did she have in mind? She wanted drama.

“Comedies are good,” she told us, “but not as moving.” La Boheme, a comedy? If that’s comedy we had trouble figuring out what she would consider “serious.” Maybe Billy Budd… Her friend Kiyoko didn’t really care one way or the other. She was just along for the ride.

But, Kerstin Ringhofer from Wiener Neustadt was still in good spirits. She wanted to buy tickets for Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and had decided to pick them up on her way out of town to surprise her husband. “Although I go to the opera at least once in a month, my husband is the real fan,” she confided. “I like classical music, but opera is not my thing.” She said smiling conspiratorially. She’s more into movies.

As we were speaking, an elderly gentleman, dressed in a long dark overcoat, turned to us and asked if he could contribute to the discussion. He seemed quite interested and wanted to have his say. He was Alfred Holmsfeld, a 78-year-old music teacher and pianist from Berlin. His love for opera had begun when he first saw the Magic Flute at the age of 12, a night he would remember for the rest of his life.

“Even now,” he said, “I feel that same magic every time the curtain starts to go up.” He turned to my friend, enchantment glowing in his eyes.

“Opera is something very, very special,” he said, “It is sad that young people today don’t seem as interested as when I was young.”

Seconds after our conversation, the gates at the further corner of the building opened for today’s flood of visitors. And ‘flood’ is the right word. As the doors opened, the lines broke apart and people began to elbow their way through the crowd to reach the ticket office. What had seemed like a group of exhausted opera lovers only a moment ago, turned into a pack of raging culture hounds in a matter of seconds.

We approached the rushing throng and waited for the tensions to die down to enter the building. The first ticket window, for advance sale had few people in line; many of those seats were sold out weeks, even months in advance. Further along, the Japanese tourists were busy snapping pictures.  Sliding past their cameras, we turned a sharp right.

There, at the end of the hallway next to the coatroom, was a small standing room. And here, the space was packed. Fortunately, there were aisles cordoned off with ropes on short stanchions guiding the crowd into reasonably civilized lines. People were whispering to each other and watching us suspiciously. I approached one Japanese couple, the Tanakas, who seemed to be in a better mood than the rest, maybe because they were about to see Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” to begin in minutes – even if they would have to stand for the entire three-plus hours it would last from curtain to curtain.

We turned back toward the main hall as people were taking the steps, two at a time, running upstairs to their seats (or standing room).

As the lights dimmed, the words of the elderly gentleman from Berlin were echoing in our minds. It was touching to see how strongly people feel about the opera. One could see it in their glistening eyes and enthusiastic gestures. Few talk that way about movies, for example.  Almost child-like euphoria was written on their faces as they ran up the stairs. It was true. The magic begins every time the curtain goes up.

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