- Among the oldest theaters with a continued existence in the world, the Vienna Burgtheater, or court theater, traces its origins to Empress Maria Theresa. In 1741, she commissioned the theatrical impresario Joseph Sellier to reconfigure a ballroom on the northeast corner of the Hofburg for theatrical performances. The initial project was completed in 1748, with further modifications of the stage arrangements taking place in 1756. Known as the Theater Next to the Burg, it was closely connected to the court. The imperial family could enter its box in the auditorium directly from its quarters in the Hofburg. The court, however, did not directly manage the house. Until 1752 the Burg, as it is familiarly known in Vienna, was in the hands of concessionaires, who used it for Italian opera and French classical drama, which were very popular at a court that spoke those languages daily. Performances in German were relatively rare.Maria Theresa put the theater under court administration between 1752 and 1756; a period of important activity in music drama followed. Calling for opera to be a musical and dramatic entity rather than a showcase for vocal athleticism, the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) had his leading works performed in the Vienna Court Theater. Orpheo and Euridice had its Vienna premier in 1762, Alcestis in 1767.Nevertheless, the Burgtheater’s finances remained shaky until 1776, when Emperor Joseph II put it under imperial patronage, renaming it in the process as the National Theater Next to the Burg. In a short time, it was known as the German National Theater. As both titles implied, the monarch had an agenda. Eager to wean audiences from what he and his advisor who developed the program, Josef Sonnenfels (1733–1817), deemed trivial and coarse popular comedies, the new theater was to offer the very best works of the world operatic and dramatic stage. The new German-language plays of Gottfried Lessing, Johann Wilhelm Goethe, and Friedrich Schiller, which cultivated Europe was taking seriously, were to be well represented. The performers themselves became state employees, with pension rights upon retirement. Though the theater often had to struggle with the constraints of censorship, it reached its greatest heights in the middle decades of the 19th century. Indeed, Burgtheater companies set performance standards for the entire German-speaking world. Two general directors were especially significant. Joseph Schreyvogel (1768–1832), who served in the position from 1814 to 1832, solidified the role of the German classics as well as the works of the great Austrian dramatic poet Franz Grillparzer in the repertory. It was Schreyvogel who fostered the company’s use of “Burgtheater German,” a pronunciation of the language that became a model not only for actors and actresses but for those who tried to speak a relatively standard form of the tongue in everyday speech. Under Heinrich Laube (1806–1884), who headed the theater from 1849 to 1867, the Burgtheater rose to its commanding position in the German theatrical world, able to mount an enormous repertory of 164 plays. Until the World War I, the Burgtheater continued to offer a broad palette of the classics, as well as some new works from the realist and naturalist theater then emerging in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Shortly before the outbreak of the war, the once-scorned Viennese popular comedy, as represented by Ferdinand Raimund and Johann Nestroy, also found its way into the program. Nevertheless, the pace of accommodation to new theatrical forms and subjects was too slow for many, and other theaters, more attuned to modern trends, appeared in Vienna to compete with the Burgtheater. Among the more enduring was the People’s Theater (Volkstheater), which opened in 1889 under private management.The Burgtheater, housed since 1888 in a neo-Renaissance building on the Ringstrasse, suffered heavy damage toward the end of World War II. Rebuilt and reopened in 1955, it continues to offer the classics of the world theater along with newer works. In the season of 1922–1923, it took over the more intimate Akademietheater, where members of the company could perform lighter and more experimental works. However, the debate over the proper balance between the classical and the contemporary has never ended, either among state theater officials or the general public. The Burg has recently turned over some of its interior space to small experimental productions.
Historical dictionary of Austria. Paula Sutter Fichtner. 2014.
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