A Night at the Staatsoper

Trip Start Sep 15, 2006
Trip End Oct 10, 2006

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Flag of Austria  ,
Friday, September 22, 2006

MOOD: Good
SONG STUCK IN MY HEAD: "Tribute" by Tenacious D
DAY: 9/22
WRITING FROM: A train from Vienna to Munich on 9/23/06 at 4:58pm
FOOD LAST CONSUMED: Apple Strudel, naturally!

Vienna was a bit of an afterthought going in. My reason for wanting to go was that one of my favorite writers, John Irving, mentions it in, like, four of his novels. Indeed, in The Hotel New Hampshire he wrote about a group of anarchists planning to blow up the Vienna Opera House. Beyond that, I thought that Vienna was between Prague, where I last was, and Munich, where I'm going for Oktoberfest. But it really isn't. However, I had a great (albeit brief) time, mostly due to having met travel companions.

After arriving yesterday around noon following my long and tumultuous trek from Prague, I dragged my sorry, bedraggled ass out of the train at Wien Mitte station, went to the tourist office, got a map and was told where to go for hostel info, then went to the rail office and found out about trains to Munich for the next day. At the youth hostel info office I not only got plenty of info on accommodations, but I was also lucky enough to find someone at that office who had the same cell phone as me, and since I only use that phone every couple of years when traveling, I always have to go through the same routine of figuring out how to turn off the stupid text messaging function that tries to guess what words you're inputting, and also I can never figure out how to make calls outside of the U.S., either. So, many things were solved there, and I thank them for it.

I got a bed on my first try at Wombat's (there's two Wombat's hostels in Vienna, and I stayed at the newest one which only opened a couple of years ago). For some reason, both Wombat's are in Mariahilfer, just a few blocks from one another and real close to the main train station. I generally try and avoid places near train stations, but the area nearby is quite nice. They advertise themselves as the cleanest hostel in Vienna, and indeed, the only other hostel experience I've had that rivals them is this monastery that I stayed at right next to the Orvieto Cathedral in Umbria, Italy, where the monks even give you little shampoos and soap like at hotels. Wombat's features bathrooms with showers in most of their rooms, as well as bedding that comes rolled up all crisply starched in a plastic sack. Very impressive. Though the bathroom was indeed spic-n-span clean and it was lovely showering and not having to worry (as much) about athlete's foot or there being a bunch of naked dudes next to you, it occurred to me that with there being one shower for an 8-bed room it was like crashing a Motel 6 with 8 people and having to wait one's turn for the shower. Fortunately, I got up early this morning and didn't have to worry about it.

Wombat's also features mixed gender dorm rooms, so I ended up sharing the room with three American girls, with at least two of them being from California. So that was kinda neat. They seemed to be part of some school for the arts in Florence and were in Vienna for the Opera. As they were getting ready to go out, they were singing on harmony to themselves, so it was like a got a free concert along with my accommodations. Thanks to them, I learned about the line for standing room at the opera and that it's best to arrive for such tickets at 6pm. So I put on my black sweater and chose sandals over sneakers, hoping that I was dressy enough and along the way I found a chain called Schnitzelhaus where I grabbed a Puszta Semmel, which was a sandwich consisting of fried pounded pork, thick bread, the tiniest bit of corn and green pepper garnish and gobs of mayo. I had just eaten deep fried pork in Prague the previous day, but as far as I'm concerned one can never truly have enough fried pork in their life. I then got on the subway, walked around to the back of the Opera House and got in line.

I needn't have worried about being underdressed as there was a contingent of teenage Koreans in front of me with ripped denim shorts and t-shirts. The opera staff also double as fashion police, it seems, as they made one of them fold down his jeans cuffs to cover his exposed ankles. Meanwhile, another person in line had on shorts and he didn't get a word of warning. I think the staffers just gave up after awhile.

There's two prices for standing room: 4.50, which gets you behind the floor seats and on the same level as the first level of boxes, or 3 Euros, which has you way up top in the gallery and balcony. Considering the sight lines of the place (which I'll get to in a moment), go for the more expensive ticket.

While waiting to get lead in, it occurred to me that I was standing in line in order to stand up during the whole performance. And it was ballet this night, not even opera. They let us in over an hour before the rest of the house, so there was yet more standing time to be had. Many of us sat down in our cramped little spaces until the show started, difficult as that was.

Meanwhile, the fashion police were back, but this time the matter was not being allowed to drape coats or sweaters over the rails in front of us, and not being allowed to have back packs with us, which I guess they were afraid would bump the people behind us. So our usher, who seemed too nice for the job (one of those guys with a perma-grin) was constantly weeding us out for infractions, sending those found guilty to the coat check, which costs .90 Euro. (When one leaves for the coat check or bathroom or what have you, you're supposed to tie something to your spot on the rail, which I thought was interesting. I don't know what I would have used, and those more experienced than me were prepared with little red velvet cords.) I had an interesting back and forth with the usher over my pack, which is a back pack that converts to a large pack that straps around my mid-section (no, it is NOT a fanny pack, damnit!). When on vacation I strap my still and video camera bags to it so that I'm a total uber tourist. At first, he gave me the OK as he only saw the video camera bag on my side. But then later he saw that I also had a larger, rear portion, and he changed his tune a bit. "This is okay," pointing to the side bag, "this is not," indicating the main pack. But when I told him it was all part of the same thing, he seemed to waffle, so I ignored him and listened to a podcast of NPR's Studio 360.

It was about 10 minutes to show time when the usher again talked to me about my pack, and I said, "I thought you said it was OK." He said no, and I was about to go to the dreaded coat check when an Englishman strolled down the aisle of us standees holding up two tickets and, looking in my general direction, stated that he had two tickets to the box seats for free. I had already shot my hand up when I first saw him, and I was the lucky recipient. Standing next to me was a girl on her own, so we thanked the man and scrambled up the steps.

"Do I still have to check my bag?" I hurriedly asked the usher, and he said, no, you could just put it in the box. So, feeling rather triumphant, I walked quickly up the stairs, introducing myself to my hastily arranged companion and learned that her name was Meeta.

Our seats were in the second row of a box that was about 2/3 from the stage, house right. Considering the angle, one would think that we could have seen everything, but it turns out that the Vienna Opera House was very poorly designed, opulence and artistic acumen aside. Meeta, seated to my left against the edge of the box, was able to see about 2/3 of the stage when leaning as far to the left as possible, and I, ironically enough, stood for most of the performance, hovering over the woman in front of me. So the moral of the story is, if you're going to the Vienna Opera House and you're planning on buying seats, either get them for the orchestra seats or the first row of the boxes, or don't bother.

The ballet was called Coppelia, which I'd never heard of, but I recognized at least two of the tunes, and later found out that, yeah, I should have heard of it before. There wasn't much to the story, and I found the first and third acts pretty boring, but the second was really fantastic. An old rascal of an inventor has a female doll, which the female love interest pretends to be to test her beau, and of course he goes for the doll, but later the couple make up and all is well.

As for the other elements, the sets were magnificent, using classic Expressionistic themes, such as buildings curved backward and arching towards the sky, and a painted backdrop with pointed trees making a complete spiral around the moon. Pretty groovy.

Besides the sets, I was most impressed by the male dancers' asses, which were incredibly muscular and on total display what with the tights they were wearing. It was total gay porn. And then there were their codpieces, which made their crotches look enormous. I mean, I'm aware of the need for stage trickery so that the audience in the back can make everything out, but this was ridiculous.

The female dancers were of course exquisite: beautiful, lithesome and incredibly agile. You don't get to dance on the Wiener Staatsoper stage for nothing. Their smiles while dancing were so exaggerated, they must have really had it beaten into them during years of lessons. Smile -- or else!

Overall, though, I most appreciated the comic relief. The man who played the part of the inventor was incredible, and there were drunks with stumbling pantomime that was genius.

I wasn't the only one to think the inventor was incredible as he and the other leads got no less than three curtain calls. This was after the three ovations before the curtain closed. It was a bit much. The orchestra had already cleared out, as well as half the audience. It was mainly one guy in the boxes who kept clapping very loudly, spurring on others. The ovations finally ended after about 10 minutes.

Between acts, Meeta and I talked and I learned she was Australian of Indian descent, living in the UK on a work visa, but generally just traveling. She made Vienna a weekend trip from Italy, and she's going back to Verona tomorrow. As we were enjoying each others' company, and it turned out that we're both staying at Wombat's, but at different locations, we made plans to get dinner after the show.

I suggested that we not try and eat around the Staatsoper as it would be pricey, so she said we should go back to where our respective hostels are, which she learned from a local was a locals' area. So we did, and after wandering around for a few blocks, wondering if there was a place that would satisfy our respective needs (she for reasonable prices, me for beer), we came upon Vikerl's Local at Wurffelgasse 4. I didn't think Meeta would go for it as the prices were a little steep and the vibe was pretty fancy, but she thought we should try it out. Boy am I glad we did.

Vikler's Local was listed as "One of the 10 Best Restaurants in Austria," and the waitress showed us a big write-up in a magazine that came out the day we were there. Now that's something! As it was 9:40pm when we arrived and they close at 11, there were only one or two other groups when we got there, and we were the last ones to leave. Otherwise, the place is apparently hard to get a seat at during prime eating time.

I ordered a lamb dish called Geschmortes Milchlammhaxerl and Meeta had the schnitzel, which she had me try, and it was unlike any schnitzel I'd had -- really moist. Meanwhile, my lamb was incredibly tender, and served with lentils, ripe grape tomatoes and sautéed red pepper that all went so well together. The waitress even brought us "a greeting from the kitchen," which were appetizers of small potato pancakes, chives, some sort of roasted seeds and thin slices of beef tongue. Really delicious.

I had yet more of the Czech Budweiser with the meal, but later realized I totally should have had some Austrian wine as I didn't have any during my time in Vienna. (But I did have strudel!) My order was about 17 Euros, which, considering the excellence of the meal and service, was a bargain.

After dinner I walked Meeta back to her place and we made plans to walk around the next day. I hugged her good-bye, walked back to my hostel where I took advantage of the "one free beer" coupon for the "Wombar" that they're nice enough to give out at check-in, then retired for the night.

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