After months of lying silent because of the coronavirus pandemic, Vienna’s illustrious classical music venues are throwing open their doors — but their vast halls can now play host to only 100 audience members at a time.
Those eager concert-goers have snapped up the few available tickets for the first shows to be put on since Austria’s concert houses shut their doors in March under a strict lockdown to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.
As the increase in infections has abated and the country eases its restrictions, venues such as Vienna’s State Opera are now allowed to reopen after hundreds of shows were cancelled.
“I watched live streams, from Paris, New York, Vienna, but it’s something else when you sit in the concert hall and so I’m so happy that it’s starting again now,” said Evelyne Strobel.
The 64-year-old teacher was among the lucky ones who trickled into the imposing foyer of the 1,709-seat State Opera on Monday, wearing a mask matching her pastel-colored outfit, to watch its first post-shutdown show.
Another audience member, 57-year-old Ulrike Grunenwald, drove 16 hours from France’s northeastern Alsace region to Vienna to attend the recital by Austrian operatic bass Guenther Groissboeck with her daughter.
She said she was armed with a negative coronavirus test in case of any border controls.
State Opera Director Dominique Meyer told AFP that while it was “frustrating” to have to cap audience numbers — and of course not economically viable in the long term — the resumption of concerts was a “symbol”.
“It’s important for the soul, for people’s mental health and the well-being of society,” he said, adding that tickets priced at 100 euros ($110) or less for the opera’s 14 shows in June were all snapped up within half an hour when they went on sale last week.
Meyer said he “could not hold back a little tear” when attending one of the very first classical concerts since the shutdown on Friday, a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the world-famous Daniel Barenboim at the city’s Musikverein.
“It was extremely beautiful… and Daniel Barenboim, who conducted and played Mozart’s 27th concerto, told me that he had played this concerto a hundred times but had never heard it played so well, and I never heard a sound so beautiful,” he said.
Barenboim told reporters last week ahead of his performances that it was “a very important moment when the music starts again”.
“For us it’s just important that we can play,” said an emotional Daniel Froschauer, first violinist and section leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
All orchestra members tested negative for the new coronavirus last week and so played without masks.
Spectators too are allowed to take off their masks once they reach their seats in the new chequerboard-like layout devised to observe social distancing rules.
But the smaller audiences affect the sound, commentators noted.
“There is a difference because each body absorbs sound, so when the room is empty, there is less absorption and therefore a little more echo,” Meyer said.
Gerlinde Kraft, who attended a concert at the Austrian capital’s famous Konzerthaus on Saturday, told AFP that being among so few spectators “doesn’t bother me but it is very unusual”.
Nonetheless, concert houses are looking to the future with trepidation, especially the prospect of a new wave of coronavirus infections.
“For us it’s pure joy to hear the music again in the places where it belongs,” Konzerthaus director Matthias Naske told AFP.
He added, however, that audience limitations were “absurd” from an economic point of view.
From July 1, up to 250 spectators are to be allowed, and the limit will be raised again in August.
A return to full concert halls — and larger-scale productions — is expected from September.
The opera and other concert venues have asked the government for special support for musicians — many of whom lost their income entirely when concert halls shut down.