Great names need not apply

The Vienna State Opera House makes a profit, but is it a bad case of accountancy over artistry? By Philipp Blom
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The record for the canvas that has been longest in the making undoubtedly goes to the portrait of Mary Magdalen, painted since 1958 by a succession of Cavaradossis in the Vienna State Opera's production of Tosca. Many generations of tenors have put brush to canvas with earnestly furrowed brow, only to leave off immediately to sing recondita armonia, save their friend and assuage their jealous lover.

Nothing is changed for the sake of change in Vienna's main opera house, the State Opera, which is one of three in a city not much larger than Birmingham. On the face of it, little change seems necessary: not only does the house have the Vienna Philharmonic as its resident orchestra and an illustrious history to look back on, but it has also operated well within budget for several years. This, ironically, is now beginning to turn against the house and its director, Ioan Holaender, as the artistic quality of performances is beginning to raise concerns - an inversion of Covent Garden's plight.

Initially, Holaender's appointment to the top job seemed an inspired choice: a singers' agent, he ran the house jointly with Eberhart Waechter, formerly a much-loved and outstanding baritone. Holaender looked after the finances and the administration while Waechter concentrated on artistic issues, in conjunction with the musical director of the house, Claudio Abbado.

The "dream team", however, split when Abbado left in 1991 after a disagreement with Holaender about the costs of the Covent Garden production of Boris Godunov, which Vienna had taken over. When Waechter suddenly died of a heart attack in 1992, Holaender took charge alone. Never known for excessive politeness, he runs a tight ship and is the first director not to have to make the ritual trips to the culture ministry in order to ask for more money.

The price of his success, however, is becoming increasingly obvious. While many great names (the "three tenors" among them) no longer sing in Vienna because Holaender refuses to pay fees which he considers disproportionately large, others have let it be known that they will not appear because of the uneven casting.

All too often, a well-known singer can be seen struggling with, or against, mediocre colleagues who simply should not stand on a stage like this, with a conductor who is often inexperienced and an orchestra which is the Philharmonic's "fourth team". While the strategy of paying only one top fee per evening certainly keeps down costs, the great, electrifying evenings seem to be a thing of the past. In addition to this, Holaender usually funds only one elaborate new production each season, making other productions look like inflated sets of school plays.

With top conductors coming less frequently because of reduced rehearsal time (which, as we all know, is money), the performances are in danger of sliding into dire mediocrity, a fact confirmed by the most dedicated and most knowledgeable listeners, who are more than usually nostalgic about the "good old days" when there was genuine excitement during the performances and the ecstatic audience would even make a singer repeat an aria.

The fiscal prudence of its director has also had other curious consequences for the State Opera, too: Vienna is bound to be the only major opera house without a proper archive, so the operatic memorabilia and documents of more than a century have been lost. Despite stating the importance of having such an archive, Mr Holaender has not yet seemed able to put his signature to a piece of paper authorising its institution.

Under normal circumstances, it would have taken less than this iron regime to arouse the rage of a public famous for its passionate scrutiny of every detail in the life of the opera. Vienna's spirit of controversy, however, is surprisingly subdued. Despite the obvious problems, the current director does not endure any of the vitriol in the press which has made the job nearly impossible for some of his predecessors. Many people even see him as a hero for keeping the house open every evening in a time that is increasingly difficult for opera even in Vienna. Resignation is creeping in. "Things have changed," says a State Opera employee. "When a performance of La Boheme was cancelled under Karajan at the last moment, there literally was a riot in the auditorium. When Pavarotti left us in the lurch one evening last year there was barely a whistle of protest. During the past 10 years, Vienna has seen empires crumble all around. This house may be a crumbling empire as well, but nobody dares to say so."

Instead of attacking the weakened house, as has happened in London, people are rallying round "their" opera and putting on a brave face. The existence of the State Opera and its place in Viennese life are never questioned, money lavished on the house is considered money well spent, and the house is never used as a pawn in a phoney tabloid war of "us" against "them". Instead, the Kronenzeitung, the largest tabloid, carries reviews of operatic events and at the local greengrocers one can hear discussions about the performances. People may attend the opera regularly (though it is usually sold out), but it is still regarded an integral part of life no more extraordinary than football.

One thought refreshingly absent from the discussion is that cheapest of rhetorical scams, the accusation of elitism. The reason for this is not the fact that the toffs are paying for "their entertainment" themselves; on the contrary, funding is well above that of London. High funding, however, means that tickets are cheap, with reasonable seats available for as little as pounds 15. Accusations of elitism against this most popular of art forms simply do not arise here.

An institution which has helped to foster this popular attachment to the State Opera, and that has brought countless people to love opera, is the provision of standing places. More than 550 of these are available for every performance, those in the gallery for pounds 1, and those behind the stalls, probably the best location in the auditorium, for only a little more.

This is not only a charitable thing to do: it is also extraordinarily far-sighted. Those who are hooked on opera as students will pay for expensive seats later. Here, a large group of regulars, experts and addicts congregates - performances and singers are compared, acclaimed and booed. This crowd can make and break performances. True, great performances with famous singers and conductors tend to produce large queues, but the atmosphere of a crowd of opera-mad addicts and of the simply curious, camping under the arcades of the opera house for a night in order to get tickets for such a performance in the early morning, is wonderful, comparable only with the crowd at the Proms. At the new, efficient and tame State Opera, this culture, too, seems to be on the wane. Queues are shortening and it is increasingly tourists who take up the standing places - another indicator of the state of current affairs.

The danger, in Vienna as elsewhere, is that the opera-loving public begins to live in an idealised past populated with great singers, and the living opera increasingly becomes the victim of its high costs, to be replaced more and more by lucrative media events.