Ball of the Republic: Vienna Opera Ball - Part II

The Vienna Opera Ball is also considered to be the "Ball of the Republic" and usually the President and the Chancellor of Austria attend it, alongside with most ministers and state secretaries. They wear a bandage with the red-white-red stripes of the Austrian flag around their chest (ladies hold a more delicate ornament in the same colour).

The ball is considered to be an event of the industries, business world and traditionalists, therefore, it has a reputation for being conservative. In the past, this meant that members of the social democrats in high government offices have had emotional issues with attending a "man′s event".

Criticism of the Vienna Opera Ball

The ball has also triggered some opposition in its history - including the launch of the "Rosenball" ("Ball of the Roses") that takes place the same night and targets homosexuals. The "Opernballdemo", a demonstration against some fashionable issue of the season is almost as traditional as the Opera Ball itself. It usually goes against conservatives, the establishment or some kind of war. In several years, these demonstrations have been violent, but with the general lack of anarchists recently, they have become much quieter. The fact that some past left-wingers attend the ball these days might have contributed to this development.

The public perception of the ball as a high-society event with all the glamour one could possibly imagine made the Austrian writer Josef Haslinger use the event for his novel "Opernball". In this book, a group of neo-Nazis targets the ball for a terror attack. The novel is an image of the Austrian society and criticises the right-wing populists that were at the peak of their power at the time of the publication in the mid-1990ies. Despite of all criticism, the ball is internationally viewed with quite positive feelings and spin-off opera balls take place in New York City, Zagreb in Croatia and Dubai.

How the Opera Ball is structured

The opening ceremony of the Vienna Opera Ball is always organised by the dancing school Elmayer. It is done by so-called "Debutants" as they give their debut to the assembled upper class of Vienna - a traditional initiation to the high society and it is still considered to be prestigious to be a Debutant in certain social environments. Once the opening dance is finished, the command "Alles Walzer!" is given - which is derived from a phrase used by Johann Strauß for the opening of balls.

It means that the dancing now involves all attendants of the ball and that the dance floor is accessible now. There are usually some other events to spice up the ball, until the traditional "Mitternachtsquadrille", a dance and show takes place. This is followed by general balling until the early hours.

Organisation of the Opera Ball

Organising an event of that scale requires sophisticated logistics. One of the main problems (and key-ingredients of the success of the ball) is the location: The National Opera is not an empty hall, it is an opera house in constant use. In order to make the main hall, where usually the audience sits, a straight surface connected with the stage, all chairs and seating have to be removed. Parquet floors are then brought into shape to connect the audience′s area with the stage, to create a single, continuous surface. All that is done within a single night and day in order to minimize the time in which the opera has to be closed for performances.

Traditionally, there is always one representative lady in charge with organising the ball. This used to be Countess Christl of Schönfeld, later Lotte Tobitsch and currently Elisabeth Gürtler, the head of the Hotel Sacher. One unofficial side-event is Richard Lugner. The Austrian entrepreneur who made most of his money with his construction company is one of the most legendary Opera Ball aficionados.

Every year since the 1990ies, he pays some "celebrity" to join him and his peculiar wife to attend the ball in his box. These celebrities are usually something between aged starlets and borderline porn stars and always create a lot of media attention. Lugner considers this a mean of advertising. Very keen on media appearances, he and his family also featured in a reality soap similar to MTV′s "The Oswalds", but even worse.

A final word about the dress code: Men wear dinner jackets (in the US "tuxedos") with white bow ties, in order to avoid being mistaken for a waiter. The waiters wear dinner jackets with black bow ties. Women have a lot of creative freedom and it is not unusual to see some rather avant-garde creations at the Opera Ball.

Return to "Vienna Opera Ball - Part I"

Further Reading

Introduction to Vienna Waltz - Wiener Walzer

Austrian Culture and Lifestyle

Etiquette in Austria

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