The Volksoper (meaning “People’s Opera”) in Vienna puts on about three hundred performances per year — nearly every evening from September through June — of operas, operettas, musicals and ballets.
Like the Komische Oper in Berlin and the Gärtnerplatz opera house in Munich, the Volksoper has a policy of performing most their operas in the vernacular, i.e. in German, no matter what language they were originally written in. This German-only policy is intended to make the operas more accessible to the local population, but it somewhat limits the singers they can get, because none of the really big stars is willing to learn the German text of, say, Verdi’s Rigoletto, when they can earn twice as much money singing it in Italian anywhere else in the world.
Most other opera houses in Austria and Germany, even the smallest ones, tend to perform operas in their original languages – and provide German surtitles if they can afford to.
This plaque in the lobby says that the theater was originally built in commemoration of the 50th year of the reign of His Majesty Emperor Franz Joseph I (that would be 1898) by “two thousand Viennese families in cooperation with the city of Vienna” as a People’s Theater for the “cultivation of German art”.
Krenek at the Volksoper
I’ve started reading the autobiography of the composer Ernst Krenek (previous post) and learned that he grew up in this part of Vienna, just a ten-minute walk from the Volksoper.
He wrote that his first musical experiences outside his family’s apartment were all connected to the Volksoper. As a child he was fascinated by the complex machinery of the musical stage, the orchestra, the lighting, the stage sets and their changes. “The theater seemed to me to be a magnificent toy which I immediately wanted to play with, but from the beginning I wanted to write for the theater, rather than imitating the actors or the conductor.”
The first real opera he saw was, probably, Der Freischütz by Carl Maria von Weber, which he saw at the Volksoper while he was still in elementary school. “Somehow we acquired a copy of the piano score of this opera, which for me became an inexhaustible source of information on all questions concerning the theater. I studied it as one never studies anything in later years, from cover to cover, and investigated tirelessly the meaning of the smallest details. I am sure I can thank these early investigations for a large part of my exact knowledge of the opera stage.”
The next opera he saw was Wagner’s Lohengrin, “and I was duly overwhelmed by this huge event. The Volksoper at this time was really a very good opera house, with excellent singers like Schützendorf and Jeritza, but also outstanding conductors like Zemlinsky.”
Among the other operas Krenek saw at the Volksoper was Salome, which “for reasons of religion and decency” was not acceptable for the Court Opera (now State Opera) down in the city center. “In the Volksoper there was a very praiseworthy performance with Richard Strauss as the guest conductor. I have never found out how they managed to squeeze over a hundred musicians into the narrow orchestra pit of a district theater that had not been built for such extravaganzas.”
Krenek and his parents saw “dozens of other operas in this venerable building”, including the Vienna premiere of Parsifal, which Wagner had prohibited from being performed anywhere but in “the holy halls of Bayreuth”. After thirty years this prohibition expired, and both Vienna opera houses scrambled to mount a production, but the Volksoper was several days faster than the Court Opera.
“I felt completely at home,” Krenek wrote, “in this modest opera theater, which courageously and effectively made its contribution to artistic history. Opera for me is still connected with the smell that pervaded the hallways, a mixture of the sausage rolls that were sold in the intermissions and Perolin, a sweetish substance that was sprayed over the audience and supposedly freshened the air.”
(I have re-translated these quotations, since Krenek originally wrote his memoirs in English, but I only have the German translation.)
Benatzky at the Volksoper
The show I saw at the Volksoper on October 2016 was an operetta called Axel an der Himmelstür (Axel at Heaven’s Gate). I had never heard of this operetta before, but it turns out to have been a huge hit when it premiered in Vienna in the year 1936. This was the show that launched the career of Zarah Leander, a previously unknown actress who went on to become a film star under the Nazis. But she was the only person in the show who benefited from the Nazi takeover. Everyone else was forced into exile, including the composer Ralph Benatzky (1884-1957). One of the librettists, Paul Morgan, was arrested and died in the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1938.
I must admit I had forgotten who Ralph Benatzky was, but I soon learned that Axel an der Himmelstür was his 77th operetta. He is best known today for one of his earlier shows, Im weißen Rößl, which is still popular especially in Austria and Bavaria.
Unusually for a Viennese operetta, Axel an der Himmelstür takes place in Hollywood. The title character Axel is a penniless reporter who through a series of funny but unlikely events manages to get an interview (and more) from the legendary film diva Gloria Mills, who was originally played by Zarah Leander.
Address of the Volksoper: Währinger Straße 78, 1090 Wien
The nearest CityBike station is 1801 Währinger Straße U6.
Public transport: Subway U6, Tram 40, 41, 42, Bus 40A to “Währinger Straße/Volksoper“
My photos in this post are from 2016. The text was last revised in 2017.
Next: Theater an der Wien (coming soon)