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Violeta Urmana -- soprano


By Tim Smith

Around 9 p.m. on June 30, 1944, the stage of the Vienna State Opera was illuminated by make-believe flames. Soprano Helena Braun, as Brünnhilde, rode her trusted steed onto the funeral pyre bearing the hero Siegfried, and as the orchestra, conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch, poured out its stirring coda, the final scene of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung" reached its end -- the "twilight of the gods," the engulfment of Valhalla and, with it, the destruction of a mighty power that once ruled the destiny of humankind.

In a curious twist of fate, that turned out to be the last operatic performance in the famed and resplendent house, which, up until then, had managed to maintain a semblance of normality in wartime. But, following that Wagernian apotheosis, the stage went dark as the war got closer and more intense. On March 12, 1945, just after 11 a.m., air raid sirens signaled yet another bombing run by the Allies. Within minutes, the theater that had been such a prized component of Vienna's and the world's cultural life since 1869 took a direct hit. The result was an all-too-real Götterdämmerung. Other than the grand foyer, little remained intact of the Vienna State Opera.

The bombing was a mistake; the structure had not been deliberately targeted. But war is never a neat business, and this particular war was on an unprecedented scale, with unprecedented consequences. Buildings were the least of the casualties.

In yet another twist of fate (some might argue, a case of poetic justice), the destruction of the opera house occurred exactly seven years to the day after German troops moved into an apparently welcoming Austria -- a doubly dark case of the Ides of March. But, in a testament to the country's better angels, the devastated edifice rose from the ashes a decade later. And, as if there never had been any dark, difficult years, the Vienna State Opera instantly resumed its place among the greatest music temples in the world -- where it remains to this day.

The 50th anniversary of the theater's reopening in 1955 was celebrated in typically starry fashion with a concert last November, which was captured for broadcast on GREAT PERFORMANCES. Interspersed with the performance is film footage of the 1945 damage and the reconstruction, along with reminiscences of singers who were in Vienna during those bleak closing days of the war. Fittingly, the program focuses on music from the operas that were performed during the 1955-56 season, works that have long figured in the Vienna State Opera's history.

That history starts with a letter written in Emperor Franz Joseph's hand to one of his government ministers toward the end of 1857, giving the final approval for plans to tear down Vienna's old city walls and create a more open urban community, with many new public buildings. In short order, a competition for the design of those buildings was held, with particular interest focused on a new opera house. Bidding architects were expected to submit a motto, as well as plans. The winning entry came from Eduard van der Nüll and August Sicard von Sicardsburg, whose design came with an especially bold motto: "Do what you must, come what may." In their case, that meant sparing no expense to build a theater worthy of an imperial court, yet accommodating to the general public.

Unfortunately, the motto took on a tragic significance. Stung by criticism on the Viennese street of his plans for the building (and already prone to depression), van der Nüll hanged himself in April 1868, 13 months before the opening of the new house on May 25, 1869. Sicardsburg didn't make it to that opening, either. He died two months after his colleague, of complications from an operation.

Had they lived, the architects would have basked in praise, as Marcel Prawy recounts in his affectionate and intimate 1969 book THE VIENNA OPERA: "Between them, Sicardsburg and van der Null had designed a superb opera house, a perfect blend of beauty and absolute functionalism. The ground-plan was simple and clear, and the building was easy to find one's way about in, which meant less danger in event of fire."

With its Gothic, Renaissance, and Romanesque elements, "no one could decide which style the house was really built in," Prawy writes. "By and large the house was in a style of its own. ... The exterior reflected the cultural power of a great Empire, while the interior, a paradoxical blend of modesty and exuberance, was pervaded with an atmosphere of music." About 3,100 people could squeeze into the theater, 1,200 of them standees. The audience on inaugural night heard a performance of Mozart's "Don Giovanni."

Top banner photos: Soprano Genia Kúhmeier, Vienna State Opera Orchestra, and conductor Seiji Ozawa.

Vienna State Opera interior

Vienna State Opera interior

Men's choir of the Vienna State Opera Chorus.

Men's choir of the Vienna State Opera Chorus.

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