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Bass-baritone Bryn Terfel
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Violeta Urmana -- soprano



Stink bombs thrown by Nazi sympathizers interrupted at least two performances that involved Jewish artists. After the Anschluss of 1938, the Nazification of the opera house was swift. On the night of March 12, the day that German troops moved into the city, Hans Knappertsbusch conducted a performance of "Tristan." The troubling era of moral and artistic accommodation had begun. A lackey of Goebbels ran the State Opera for a short while, before a more credible wartime director, conductor Karl Böhm, took over in 1943. Strauss was also still very much a presence during much of the war; the premiere of his "Capriccio" was held at the house in 1944. Eminent singers who built their careers in Vienna as the war raged included sopranos Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Sena Jurinac, tenors Max Lorenz and Set Svanholm, and bass Hans Hotter.

After the war, the company took up temporary residence in other venues in the city, the Theater an der Wien and Volksopera, guided by directors Franz Salmhofer and Hermann Juch. When the reconstructed building opened, now with a reduced capacity of about 2,100 (including 567 standing room spots), the choice of opera was inevitable -- Beethoven's "Fidelio," a celebration of the triumph of good over evil, freedom over tyranny. Sitting in one of the boxes was Bruno Walter, who had had to flee the Nazis in the late 1930s; in the orchestra pit, conducting that emotional night in 1955, was Karl Böhm, who had stayed in Vienna throughout the war.

Böhm held the title of director for a short while, succeeded by conductor Herbert von Karajan, whose reign from 1956 to 1964 was marked by the addition of important contemporary works to the repertoire, including Francis Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" and Igor Stravinsky's "Oedipus Rex." In a case of déjà vu, Karajan organized the second historic collaboration with Milan's La Scala. The Italian company sent its top casts for Italian repertoire to the Austrian capital (only since the 1955 reopening had non-German works been performed in their original language, rather than in German translation); in turn, the Vienna company sent its Mozart and Wagner singers to La Scala.

Karajan, in the Mahler tradition, involved himself heavily in the stage-directing of operas (his approach to lighting, which usually meant very little of it, provoked controversy), but he also brought in top-rate directors and designers who helped modernize the overall look of the company. There was a steady parade of illustrious vocal artists in the Karajan years -- Leontyne Price, Franco Corelli, Mario del Monaco, Leonie Rysanek, Tito Gobbi, Birgit Nilsson, Jon Vickers, Christa Ludwig, Mirella Freni, and so many more.

Post-Karajan directors included Egon Hilbert, Heinrich Reif-Gintl, Rudolf Gamsjäger, and Egon Seefehlner. Evaluations of those tenures credit the continuing boost from world-class singers and, for a very brief period, the sensational conducting of Leonard Bernstein. But reservations about generally conservative repertoire were also heard. The Vienna house seemed bound for heady times with the appointment of famed conductor Lorin Maazel as artistic director in 1982, but Maazel appears to have run into the sort of resentment and intrigue that drove Mahler from the house; he resigned after two years. Seefehlner resumed control, and was succeeded in 1986 by Claus Helmut Drese, whose enlightened hiring of Claudio Abbado as music director ensured a fresh era of artistic excellence. Abbado departed in 1991. The years that followed were characterized by a certain amount of inconsistency in the house, but the Vienna State Opera's overall status never waned.

Since 1992, the house has been run by Ioan Holender, whose contract runs until 2010. During his tenure, he has enlarged the company's repertoire (Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes" is a notable example), maintained the presence of big-name, big-talent singers, and, in what looks like a particularly inspired move, brought in Seiji Ozawa as principal conductor (since 2002).

The theater continues to thrive, a magnet for great singers and conductors. Its rich traditions weren't touched at all by those bombs in 1945. Over the past 137 years, it has never lost its devoted, knowledgeable public (I'll never forget a 1970s performance of Strauss' "Elektra" starring Birgit Nilsson and conducted by Böhm -- a roughly 90-minute work, followed by 45 minutes of applause).

There's still something noble about this elegant venue, which, after all, started out as an imperial theater. And there is in its long history many a remarkable chapter, many a lesson about standards and ideals. It stands as an inspiring testament to the vocal art.

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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