Friday, September 24, 2010

Ich kann nicht sitzen: Standing Room at the Vienna State Opera


So, you’re visiting Vienna and you want to go to the opera.  Your guidebook suggests that you avail yourself of the many cheap standing room (Stehplatz) tickets sold on the day of each performance, but that’s just about all it says.  If you want to know waaaay more than is necessary about the mechanics of the ritual that is the Wiener Staatsoper’s standing room, here's your guide.

I’m assuming you’ve already decided to go to the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper).  If they’re not your thing for some reason but you still want to go to a performance in Vienna, you should also consider the Theater an der Wien, Musikverein, Konzerthaus (no standing room), or Volksoper.  I will write about these venues’ ticket policies later.

And: if you have any aspiration to see actual art onstage, absolutely never buy a concert ticket from anyone dressed as Mozart.  Read on for something way better.

1. Should you do standing room?
Standing room’s great advantages are its low price (3-4 Euros), nonrequirement of advance planning, and, from the orchestra level standing room, fantastic sight lines.  The seats for many performances sell out well in advance, particularly in the cheaper price categories, but almost all standing room tickets are sold the day of the show, and the view can be better than from seats costing over a hundred Euros.  But you are, you know, standing for the whole opera.  If you think you can easily grab an empty seat, think again.  If you have problematic knees or any other health issues that could interfere this is probably not a good idea.  Make sure you’re going to be able to enjoy it.  I still hold a grudge against Manon Lescaut from an uncomfortable standing room experience.
The view from the first row of Parterre standing room
Also, pick your opera carefully.  The Staatsoper schedule, available in the lobby and on their website, includes the length of each opera.  Consider your operatic experience and general interests before going to anything long and/or that you think you may find dull.   E.g., unless you are a Wagner fan, Parsifal is probably a bad idea.  It might convert you but that long on your feet listening to grass grow might also make you want to shoot yourself.  The Staatsoper plays one or two shortish golden oldies every week (Magic Flute, Barber of Seville, etc.) that are suitable for just about everybody.  (But realize that these ones often get some combination of the least starry casts, most ramshackle productions, and most indifferent orchestra, if you care about that.)

2. When should I get in line?
Tickets go on sale 80 minutes before the opera starts.  If you want a prime spot, you’re going to have to wait at least a little before that.  There are three sections: Parterre (just above orchestra level) , Balkon (balcony), and Galerie (gallery).  Parterre gets great views, but unless you are in the first two or three rows the sound is mediocre due to the overhang.  Galerie sounds great and while it's the top level of the house, it is not a big theater by American standards and from the center the view is still good (the side Galerie spaces have very bad sight lines).  The upper level is less claustrophobic; the back half of Parterre can get very warm and crowded.  You also don’t have to wait as long for Galerie spots because most of the early people take Parterre. I don't recommend Balkon, it's got all the drawbacks of Galerie with few of the advantages.

There’s no exact science of timing.  Show up earlier if it’s a weekend or holiday or if there are any big names in the cast.  If you are not informed in these matters but want to plan ahead, then Google the leading singers and see if they seem to have recording deals, fashion spreads, or personal cults of fanatics who have a nickname for themselves.  Put their name into YouTube and if many videos appear factor in some extra time, particularly if lots of them look like they came from cell phones, because the people who make those videos will be in line and they show up insanely early.

A long line outside in spring
If you’re shooting for a good Parterre spot and there are no superstars in the cast, it’s safest to just check out the line at around 3:30 or 4:00 (for a 7:30 curtain), earlier if you are very keen, see that there are only five people there,  go do something else and come back later.  If there are big names then adjust forward, if you aren’t aiming for front Parterre adjust backwards.  If Anna Netrebko is involved budget much of the day, I am not kidding here.  Rare operas, particularly twentieth-century ones, are invariably less popular than well-known ones.

But never count on getting even a crappy spot without waiting, because X baritone you’ve never heard of might happen to be an old Vienna favorite and everyone turned out in force and there are also three busloads of Japanese tourists in line.  You never know, is what I'm saying.  However, most cancellations/casting changes happen before noon, so you can cross that fear off your list.*

You can only buy one ticket each, so make sure your whole group is in line.

3.  So I’m going to get in line.

Shorts are very much frowned upon and by some of the stricter ushers banned altogether.  Wear comfortable shoes.  Don’t even think about heels, fellow ladies.  If you’re showing up early, dress for waiting outside (though the line is under an overhang).  But be advised that the auditorium itself gets warm and the dense Parterre standing area warmer.  Regulars bring folding chairs or stools for the line (see the pictures).  You also will need to bring a scarf or string to mark your spot in the auditorium.  Snacks and books are also advisable.  If it’s a Wagner opera other than Dutchman or Rheingold, bring a sandwich to eat between Acts 2 and 3.  You will be glad you did this!  Standing tires you out more than sitting.

The line forms on the Operngasse side of the opera house.  This is the west side, near the Albertina, parallel to Kärtnerstrasse and to the left when you’re facing the building from the Ring but behind the fountain.  There’s a small sign reading “Stehplätze/Standing Area.”  (“Stehplätze” actually translates as “Standing Places,” but whatevs.)  Depending on when you get there, the line is either outside under the overhang or inside behind this door.  Also, get to know your line-mates!  Austrians can be hard to start a conversation with but they’re usually friendly once you break the ice.  As long as you explain to your line-mates, you can leave the line to get coffee or food or go to the bathroom or even, on a long wait, to get a quick lunch.  Once you’re inside the opera house, though, the ushers are watching and you should mostly stay in line.  There’s a bathroom in the hall just to the right of the ticket window.

The line inside
There are many intricate little steps in the process.  Just follow the people in front of you.  80 minutes before the opera starts you’ll buy your ticket, try to have exact change.  Tell the ticket-seller which section you want.  The places aren’t assigned, and after buying your ticket you jog down the hallway behind the ticket booth, past the coat check, and left into the main part of the opera house.  You then go left again and up one short flight of steps.  If you’re in the gallery, continue upstairs until you hit the line, if you’re in the parterre you wait on this level in two lines, one at each entrance into the orchestra section of the house.  Around 50-60 minutes before the opera starts, the ushers open the doors and lead the lines into the auditorium itself and everyone rapidly claims their spot (each marked by a single title viewer) as directed by the ushers.  Tie your scarf around the bar below the titles to mark your place.  Make sure you put your ticket somewhere you will be able to find it again.

If you’re not devoted, you can skip this part after buying your ticket and have more time for dinner, but realize that everyone else is tying their scarf somewhere and when you show up later after the crowds have cleared only the least desirable spots will be left.   Some of these are, shall we say, a little short on personal space.  Also on sight lines, if we’re talking Galerie sides.

If you waited to get a place, you now have 45 minutes or so to eat dinner.  I usually bring something with me, but there’s also a Würst stand near the line and some Turkish food stands that also have pizza on the Ring.  There’s a big Anker bakery with sandwiches in the passage under the Ring. Also, try to sit down for a while.  Check your bag and/or coat when you get back to the house, it’s required and you want as much space in standing room as you can get.

Go back to your marked spot before the opera starts and enjoy the show!  Note that moving someone else’s scarf is NOT DONE.  Like, seriously, seriously not done. If an apparently clueless tourist has taken your spot, kick their ass out.

Final Notes
If you want a program you’ll have to buy one from an usher.  These are elaborate books with lots of pictures of the production's premiere cast and articles in German and stuff, there’s a plot summary in English at the very back.  You can also just get the pamphlet with the evening’s cast and forgo the book, ask for “nur die Liste.”

I consider the Wiener Staatsoper standing room one of the best opera experiences you can get anywhere.  The house itself is maddeningly inconsistent, but as well as an unbelievable bargain the standing room is a fascinating sociological experience and has an energy quite different from seeing an opera from a seat.  It’s not for everyone, but I think it’s one of the best things Vienna has to offer its visitors.  So do not fear the ritual, revel in it!

*Useful vocabulary: erkrankt (fallen ill), abgesagt (canceled), Umbesetzung (casting change), springt ein (substitutes).  If the opera is obscure, cancellations can prompt dramatically short-notice changes of opera.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Phew! What a great piece.

The vital bit is to take a scarf to bag your place, and to remember that many occupants of the Stehparterre stick to the principle that it is easier to seek forgiveness than permission.

Nora said...

Really enjoyed reading this! Felt almost like I was there minus the standing-through-Parsifal.

marcillac said...

Per chance, my first experience with sitting room - first row - in Vienna coincided with my first Wagner in the form of Parsifal. We knew Wagner tended to be long, were prepared for the marathon and were actually pretty excited but, as you know the 1st Act went on and on and .... You can well imagine our relief at intermission. Fortunately we did spot a couple of open seats in the orchestra and were lucky in that the dressed to the 9s and stern looking Viennese acquiesced in our assumption of the seats with sufficiently good humor.

thadieu said...

thanks for the great post! I wanted to add: when you're in line inside the opera house, if you leave your spot, the usher might not allow you back. This happened to the woman in front of me: she had some knee problem and just stepped out while her daughter was still in line. when she tried to get back to the spot, the usher refused to let her. Also, for food, you can go down the metro station for quick cheap sushi at a small asian shop below. It's amazing that the view you get from the galerie standing room is better than from expensive seats in many opera houses in the US. I'm going there for Alcina in Nov!

Zerbinetta said...

I don't think the ushers care if you leave the line as long as you stay inside (if you want to walk around the immediate area or use the bathroom), but if you go out of the box office area there is apt to be trouble.

I've never seen a scarf dispute that hasn't involved tourists as the accused usurpers. This probably has partly to do with the high proportion of tourists in standing room, but the Austrians seem to really respect the sanctity of one's scarf. In line at the grocery store, on the other hand...

I have heard that it is that it is next to impossible to grab empty seats now, supposedly the ushers almost always check tickets as you're entering the seat area, even after intermissions. I'm not sure if this is at all true, but I have never even tried to sit down on a standing ticket. I've done it almost everywhere else but Vienna is usually just about sold out and has the most fearsome ushers. (I've upgraded from standing to a seat at the Met using all sorts of questionable and often wildly successful methods, some resulting in second-acting in Row D Center Orchestra and Grand Tier Row A and the like.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info. I've booked my tickets, when will they tell you the program start time? I understand the subtitle would be in German and there's some kinda electronic device at your seat which shows subtitles in other languages? Is cloakroom free? Do they sell unsold seats at big discounted price a few hours before the show?

Zerbinetta said...

Hi most recent Anon,
The coatroom is now free! It didn't used to be, I hope this spreads to other theaters in Vienna, that's a Euro I always hate spending.

Timing should be clear on the website and schedule--sometimes new productions don't have a running time, though.

There is a little screen that shows the libretto on the back of the seat or standing room place in front of you, it's like Met Titles. You can choose between German and English or leave it off. They're kind of low down and awkward to watch from standing room.

I don't think they have a discounted last-minute tickets (Restkarten) program currently (they used to have them just for under-27s, but I think this has stopped), but if a LOT of tickets are unsold a week or so early they sometimes pop up at 20% or even 50% off at the EMI store ticket agency or other scalpers.

Julien said...

I've not seen ushers control tickets after the interval. If you see an empry seat, try your luck, but try to blend in. The dress code, especially in the lower areas, is business/formal. If you arrive there in blue jeans and tee-shirt, you risk beeing kicked out.

Back in the good old days when I was a student in Vienna, I tried to seat in the parterre after the interval. I was quickly spotted (too young, no jacket, no tie) and was very brutally evicted, amid threats of calling the police if I didn't comply, and despite the best efforts of the little old lady seating next to me to mollify the ferocious usher. That was back in 1988, I can pay for more expensive tickets now and have never seen anyone get expelled. Maybe they became less dumb with time.

A propos blending it, don't overdo it either and avoid tuxedoes and evening dresses, it just looks ridiculous (last time I was there (for Billy Budd in February) I saw a 2nd Lt of the (US) 82nd airborne division in full dress uniform. The fellow looked good in it but it was nonetheless a little silly).

Glen Salbach said...

Enjoyed reading your description of how to do standing room at the Staatsoper. I first stood there in the '59-'59 season. It was a little different then. On some occasions, say, for a Gast singer; Tebaldi, Vickers, L.Price or a new production; Siegfried (I remember particularly)I would get up at 3 AM and go to the opera house to begin standing. Then, eventually at some point we would be given a ticket with our place number and then not need to return before sometime in the afternoon for the procedure you described so well. Thank you for triggering the fond memory.

Musicasola said...

Thank you for this post. One question: is there a bar or something you can lean upon, especially in the parterre area? I don't mind standing even for Wagner operas, as long as I can do it quite confortably, as in the Munich opera for instance (where standing tickets are much more expensive but can be booked in advance just as every other ticket)...
And is the area reasonably quiet? With tourists and my experience of the Munich operagoers commenting what they see, I always fear that!

yap said...

Hi,
just found your very instructive post when googling and now feel quite well-prepared for my impending Staatsoper adventure on Thursday. Seems like I'm looking at No Alagna, Less Queue.
I hope customs haven't changed too much over the last two years. And if you could give me any hint as to where exactly the Gallerie Stehplätze are located - or how many there are with acceptable sight lines - it would be much appreciated!
Anyway, belated thanks a lot for this wonderful post. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hello and thank you very much for this blogpost! I recently had the chance to enjoy Nabucco in a standing place. Thanks to your extensive info I found it very easy to follow, I was in line at the end of Sept. like two hours before the opera started and was able to get 2nd row in Parterre for 4 euros!

Since the only thing that could be missing is a picture of the standing places (which were better than I imagined), here is a shortcut to a picture I took of them:
imgur dot com slash KYdVpqn
Please feel free to use it anyway you want! Regards!

V

Anonymous said...

Remember going to the Vienna State Opera for new years eve 1972 of "The Fledermaus" Erich Kunz was the jailer and the night went on and one and not understanding the local humor is was a long night.. Standing room was horrible .If one wanted to lean back on the bar behind you the usher- with a long stick- would prod you in the back! They were the worse. The following night we bought tickets in a box and once again the usher was a terror ! He felt we were not dressed well enough. We had long hair (but no jeans ) and told us to sit back and not lean over so the rest of the audience could see us. I have never been back. Everyone was telling you what to do, and what not to do .Now I visit my beloved Metropolitan Opera regularly and love every minute.

Micaela said...

Anon #13: I love this story, thanks for sharing. Nothing really does change in Vienna, does it? I think it's somewhat more physically comfortable now (a lot of the most loyal standees are senior citizens), but the attitude is pretty similar. (When I saw Fledermaus I got maybe 30% of Frosch's jokes and I had been living in Wien for six months at that point...)

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