Of Italian origins, the genre made its first appearance in Vienna in 1626. A year later, this new form of music theater arrived in Prague; by 1628, opera performances were taking place in the then-autonomous archbishopric of Salzburg. By the middle of the 17th century, Italian opera had come to Innsbruck as well. Habsburg courts, particularly that of Emperor Leopold I (1640–1705), who was himself a passable composer, drew some of the leading Italian composers of music drama.
   Operas in these early years were characteristically put on as part of lavish court festivals. Among the more staggering was Pietro Antonio Cesti’s Il Pomo d’oro, the most famous of Baroque grand operatic entertainments, written for Leopold’s wedding to his niece, Infanta Margherita of Spain, in 1667. Five acts with 66 scenes and 24 sets required complex backstage machinery, custom built for the occasion. Several dance sequences interspersed each act; a triple ballet brought the mammoth spectacle to an end.
   Though Viennese opera remained notable for its relatively formal style, grandiose productions, staging, and liberal use of chorus and dance, the classicizing simplicity of 18th-century aesthetics gradually curbed such extravaganzas. An increasingly stingy Habsburg court cut back its budgets, too. Though Joseph II tried through the use of German in the so-called Singspiel to introduce the public to morally uplifting theatrical experiences, Italian opera in Italian continued to be a major presence on the Viennese musical scene, as well as in the Austrian provinces. Favored composers were Antonio Salieri, the court composer, and Gioacchino Rossini. Though the latter never wrote an opera specifically for performance in Vienna, the public adored his work. All of his operas were put on in the city or just outside of it between 1816 and around 1836. Performances took place not only at the imperial court theater, renovated by Empress Maria Theresa for opera and comedy in 1741, but also in public auditoriums such as the Theater on the Wien. A large number of Italian composers continued to work in the city in both the serious and comic veins. Most notable was Salieri, known less for the quality of his music, which was by no means bad, than for his alleged hostility to the prodigiously gifted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Neither Vienna nor the Austrian provinces characteristically produced great opera composers. Mozart stands apart from this generalization, but even he used Italian-language libretti for most of his important operatic works, except for the comic Abduction from the Seraglio and his paean to Freemasonry and high seriousness, The Magic Flute. The Habsburg capital preferred to look to Europe generally for its operatic entertainment. Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787), who worked in Paris and Vienna to simplify operatic vocal and orchestral lines in the name of classical beauty and emotional depth, was born in Germany of Czech parents and trained as a young man in Italy. Ludwig van Beethoven, whose highly politicized Fidelio was revised twice after its initial performance in Vienna in 1805, was from the German Rhineland.
   The pattern continued even after the current house on the Vienna Ringstrasse opened on 25 May 1869. The preeminent foreign composers of the time did not find a welcome there. The reigning Austrian critic of the last decades of the 19th century, Eduard Hanslick, was intensely hostile to new musical currents of the day, especially the chromatic progressions and cultural agenda found in the New German style of Richard Wagner and his followers.
   The Vienna opera remained unfriendly to Wagner’s successors as well. Alban Berg’s pathbreaking Wozzeck premiered in Berlin in 1925. Richard Strauss’s Elektra, with a libretto by the great Austrian poet, dramatist, and man of letters, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was first performed in Dresden in Germany in 1909, the site also for the opening night of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal Der Rosenkavalier (1911), a comic but tender look back at rococo Vienna as the composer and his poet imagined it to be. Ernst Křenek’s (1900–1991) jazz opera, Jonny spielt auf—in which the protagonist is a black saxophonist who, to critical contemporaries, represented an attack of American barbarity on the European musical tradition—was first performed in Leipzig in 1927.
   Important contemporary opera composers have not had much better luck in Austria since 1945. Gottfried von Einem’s (1918–1996) Dantons Tod (Danton’s Death) had its premier at the Salzburg Festival in 1947, but others have seen initial performances of their work in Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere. Perhaps the most radically experimental composer to work in Austria in the second half of the 20th century, the Hungarian György Ligeti (1923–), saw the first performances of his operatic works (Adventures and New Adventures, 1966; The Macabre One, 1978) in Stuttgart and Stockholm, respectively.
   See also Music; Theater.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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