Interior Statues of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Austria
Pure decadence, exorbitant elegance, genteel allure, stunning beauty. Welcome to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera House. The first of the extravagant buildings on Vienna‘s most famed street, the Ringstrasse (now a designated UNESCO site), the Staatsoper was opened to the genteel Austrian public in 1869. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building was surprisingly unpopular with said genteel Viennese. (It somehow was not considered grand enough. You have to wonder about that genteel 19th century high society…). Then on the fateful night of March 12th, 1945, inferno rained down upon Vienna’s opera house, dropped by US bombers. Fire poured from the sky, bombs exploded in the streets, and flames ate their way through the Ringstrasse. Though the angry flames could not get into the walled-off foyer and fresco-filled stairways, the auditorium and 150,000 costumes for 120+ operas went up in smoke. When WWII was finally over, it was debated: shall we rebuild the originally unpopular building as per original design, or do we redesign it to modern tastes? Thank goodness the former option was chosen, and the Wiener Staatsoper was rebuilt in all its former glory (and happily, it is now beloved by Viennese and foreigners alike). Today, you can’t visit musical Vienna, home (at one point or another) to such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and Mahler, without visiting the opera. Loiter inside the foyer for a bit and if you have time, buy yourself a ticket to the opera or ballet. If you’re a budget traveller, queue in the ‘standing’ line in the afternoon to buy a €3 or €4 ‘standing’ ticket (arrive 3hrs prior to the show’s start; once you’ve got your ticket, tie a scarf to mark your spot and head out for a bite to eat). Be sure to dedicate plenty of time to explore the palatial building – frescos, statues, paintings, vast staircases and awe-inspiring architecture await!
Splendor. Grandeur. Elegance. Beauty. Magnifigance. Luxury. Marble. Sophisticated. Refined. These are just a few words we associate with the splendid Austrian capital that is Vienna. Old world charm, the age of the steam engine, the golden days, the Victorian era. Vienna, for one reason or another, seems trapped in a snow globe from the turn of the century. It is a city full of grand palaces, of tree-lined avenues, of magnificent churches, of stately gardens, of bustling cafes. Exquisite sculptures like the one above seem to stroll through the city, and fountains trickle in marble basins. This is city that gave us the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the Empress Maria Theresa, the doomed Marie Antoinette, the scientist Schrödinger and his famed cat. It is the Capital of Classical Music, a hub that entices some of the best classical musicians to call Vienna home: Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and of course the infamous Mozart. The Pole Fryderyk Chopin (better known as “Frédéric”) made his debut here. Franz Liszt, the composer Gustav Mahler (buried in Vienna), Max Steiner, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Antonio Vivaldi,Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss senior and junior – they were all here. This is a city that exudes music. This is a city where you can see an opera for €3. This is a city were there is classical music playing even in the public toilets. Music, marble and cafes – the three things make Vienna the elegant exemplar that it is today.
Street-performing violin-guitar duo in Budapest, Hungary
We don’t give enough attention into the sounds of a place; it may be the most underrated of the five senses. For most of us–tourists and locals alike–it’s all about the magnificent views, pretty buildings, smells of the food cooking, the taste of the perfect pizza or verre du vin, perhaps even the feel of the cobblestones underfoot. Out in the countryside, sounds get a little more attention–namely, birds chirping, cicadas buzzing, wind blowing. Not only do sounds add flavour to a city, but they change our perspective of the view–without us even noticing! And one of the most positive influences on a city–when it comes to sounds–are those of street performers. Street artists don’t get enough credit. They hold the power to add character and completely change the way we think about a place. Could you imagine Las Ramblas in Barcelona without people in costume, artists painting your caricature, people singing and dancing to Spanish music? Could you imagine the streets of Paris or Lyon without someone playing French ballads on an accordion? Or Vienna without it’s constant stream of Oscar-worthy musicians and singers? Budapest without these lovely musicians in the Castle District? They exist in every city–and yet, we hardly pay them any attention. We enjoy their music as we walk by, perhaps smile for a moment before continuing on without even a thought to reach for our wallets. Yet, normal city sounds (car motors, airplanes over head, people shouting, machines humming, etc) aren’t very ‘beautiful;’ and all those barely-noticed artists, musicians and performers who do make beautiful or–at least interesting–music and performances are left to become obscure starving artists….now how is that fair? So the next time you’re downtown and someone’s performance makes you stop and watch or listen, be nice and toss in a few coins.
There’s something romantic about walking through an old city and hearing the twinkling sounds of an accordion gliding through the streets. Accordions are romantic, remainders of bygone times. As you walk through Plac Zamkowy, the centre of Warsaw’s Old Town, you might stumble across this accordion player and momentarily be transported back in time. There was once a time when Warsaw was a beautiful city, a reigning queen. Of course, like the rest of Poland, WWII destroyed it. The Poles rebuilt their capital city from the fallen rubble to resemble what it once was, though outside of the the very centre, one must use one’s imagination. Yet, little details like horse-drawn carriages, little cafes, and the accordion player all help to remind the wayward traveller of what this Eastern European once was.
If you’ve never seen an opera performed, I’d suggest you start here, in Vienna. Vienna lives and breathes music. Most North American music studies offer a study-abroad course to Vienna. A major must-see of this miraculous city is the Opera House. And most major music composers you’ve ever heard of have connections to Vienna. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and so many others came to Vienna for music. This is a city where people listen. Music overpowers any other form of communication. So, when you go to Vienna, go to the opera. It was the first major building on the Vienna Ringstaße (circa 1861), and the building itself is impressive. Three hours before a show, go around back to the standing tickets office, and wait in line (you might want to bring a book). When the office opens, buy a ticket to the parterre (in my opinion, the best view of the three options). You’ll have to stand, but you only pay 4 euros for the same view as the seats just in front of you…who all paid upwards of 100 euros (or pay the 100 if you can afford it). You won’t regret it.