Tag Archives: Emperor Franz Joseph

Mimi and Rodolfo in Budapest


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What if it were as easy and cheap to see world-class opera as to see a movie?  In Budapest, world-class opera is actually easier and cheaper than a movie–at least for the tourist.  I have not seen a single movie theater as I’ve wandered Budapest.  But at the Opera Metro stop, sure enough, I found myself outside the grand headquarters of the Hungarian National Opera.  With no advance planning at all, I walked in and bought same-day tickets for my very favorite opera, La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini. Tickets were available for just a few dollars.  I splurged and snapped up two seats that must have been returns, 3rd row center.  The cost was still about 1/6 to 1/10 what I’d expect to pay in New York, Paris or Vienna.

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The gilded auditorium holds about 1200 seats, and the acoustics are generally considered among the very best in the world, after La Scala in Milan and the Opera Garnier in Paris. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria shared the cost with the city of Budapest, once he became King of Hungary in a political compromise that put an end to years of bloody conflict.  The first performances in the neo-Renaissance auditorium took place in 1884.

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From my seat, I could look over the shoulder of the conductor into the orchestra and marvel at the perfect coordination between about a hundred instrumentalists and the sublime singers onstage.  Sets, costumes, acting, music–all combined to tell a simple but moving story.  I love this particular opera because it deals with ordinary humans making ordinary messes of their lives, and doing it in the most musical and poetic way possible.  There are no dead spots in this opera–there’s either lively action or an achingly beautiful piece of music at every moment.

What about language?  The opera was sung in its original Italian. Hungarian translations appeared above the stage.  No matter! I knew the story and even most of the lyrics well enough to follow along.

Teodor Ilincai as Rodolfo, Royal Opera House 2010, photo by madamabutterfly, Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution 3.0

Teodor Ilincai as Rodolfo, Royal Opera House 2010, photo by madamabutterfly, Creative Commons Share Alike Attribution 3.0O

Of course no photos were allowed during the performance. I had to be content with the photo above, from an earlier performance. Teodor Inincai was a wonderful Rodolfo, and Letay Kiss Gabriella was transcendent as Mimi.  I was happy to share a glorious performance with an appreciative audience.  Afterward, I didn’t want it to end.  I happily sat through many curtain calls, complete with shouts of “Brava!” and “Bravo!” and their Hungarian equivalents.

What’s next, before I leave Budapest? A performance of the ballet The Nutcracker at the Hungarian State Opera House. I can’t wait!


An Imperial Last Stop


Since about 1633, members of the Habsburg dynasty have enjoyed a rare privilege: their own private burial vault under the Capuchin Church in Vienna.  It’s right in the middle of the city. Someday maybe I’ll pay a few Euros and descend into the vault, but so far I get creeped out every time I consider doing it. The vault is really a series of underground rooms, some of them domed so that daylight enters. About 145 Habsburgs rest there in their elaborate tombs, and some Habsburgs are still eligible even though the monarchy is long gone.  The most recent burial was in 2011. I think the statue outside is St. Peter, very appropriate for the royal pearly gates.


In an age when common people (and geniuses like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) were usually buried in unmarked mass graves, the Habsburgs enjoyed their privilege.  It would not do to flaunt the luxury of a grand burial vault, though.

Early on, a Habsburg PR person came up with a brilliant idea: a ceremony of regal humility that precedes each burial.  The royal procession arrives at the church door and an official knocks–with a special regal staff, of course.  Crowds of commoners outside listen breathlessly to the ritual. A waiting monk inside the door calls out, “Who is there?” The official recites all the titles of the deceased–and with the Habsburgs, it was always a long and impressive list. The waiting monk answers, mournfully, “We do not know him.”  The official knocks again.  The monk asks, “Who is there?” The official recites an abbreviated list of titles.  Again, the waiting monk replies, “We do not know him.”  FInally, after the third knock on the door, the official says, “Here is (insert name), a poor sinner.”  The door swings open and the procession enters.



In a previous post, “A Tragic Crown Prince,” I wrote about Rudolf, the frustrated son of Emperor Franz Joseph.   This young man could see that change was in the air, and tried his best, in his muddled way, to convince his father to go with the flow in order to hang on to power.  Franz Joseph would have none of it.  Rudolf committed suicide, along with his mistress, rather than live out his life in the gilded cage of the monarchy that was soon to be swept away by sweeping social change. That post is at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/02/07/a-tragic-crown-prince/. A favorite movie of mine–I guess it’s a guilty pleasure–begins and ends with the Capuchin Church ceremony for poor Rudolf, with his heartbroken but stoic father, Emperor Franz Joseph, patiently waiting to enter the church. Those knocks on the massive church door get me every time.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!


A Tragic Crown Prince



When I’m missing my favorite city, Vienna, I watch a movie about it.  One of my favorites is the impossibly romantic film “The Crown Prince,” made in 2006.  The film tells the story of Rudolf, son of Emperor Franz Joseph and the fabled beauty Empress Elisabeth. Rudolf tried for years to win the respect of his autocratic father and to convince his father that the empire needed to change with the times.  Franz Joseph was immovable.  His son Rudolf was forced into a dreary arranged marriage.  The more Rudolf urged reforms, the more Franz Joseph pushed him out of the centers of power. Eventually Rudolf began an affair with an adoring and foolish young woman, Baroness Mary Vetsera.

The two lovers died in a suicide pact at Rudolf’s hunting lodge, Mayerling, in 1889. The royal family tried to cover up the truth, and details remain murky to this day.  But the heir to the empire was gone and the inevitable decline of the empire accelerated. By 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more.

Portrait of Crown Prince Rudolf, Public Domain

Portrait of Crown Prince Rudolf, Public Domain

The film is a leisurely 3 hours, with plenty of time to explore the gilded but stultifying court life Rudolph had to endure.  I especially like the street scenes; many parts of Vienna have not changed much in the past century. The director was Robert Dornhelm.  Max Van Thun plays Rudolph, and the lovely Vittoria Puccini plays Mary Vetsera.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Sisi, the Tragic Beauty



Empress Elisabeth of Austria has tons of followers on the tourist trail in Austria today, although in her lifetime she was seldom seen.  The Carriage Museum at Schonbrunn Palace was seldom visited until officials made it part of the “Sisi Trail.”  Now a few people out of the droves of tourists at the palace cross the courtyard to puzzle over artifacts from Sisi’s privileged but sad life.

Nobody knew quite what to make of Sisi during her lifetime, and she hardly gave anyone the chance to know her.  She’s often compared with England’s unhappy Princess Diana, but the difference is that Diana used and manipulated the media.  Sisi really just wanted to be left alone. Born to aristocrats in 1837, Sisi lived an idyllic life at her family’s Bavarian castle until she caught the eye of the young Emperor Franz Joseph, then 23 to her 15.  He was visiting Bavaria in order to propose to her older sister–a typical arranged marriage between aristocratic first cousins.  But once he saw Sisi, he had to have her and it was pretty much impossible to refuse him.

By all accounts, Sisi was fond of Franz Joseph, but she absolutely hated the restrictions of royal life.  So did he, but he was a man of duty–and he saw it as his duty to see that nothing ever changed.  After giving birth to three children in rapid succession, and having those children taken away from her for court authorities to raise “properly,” Sisi began a life of restless traveling and ceaseless physical activity. She reconciled with Franz Joseph for brief periods, but mostly she led her own life out of the public eye.


She loved horses and was a spectacular rider, spending several seasons in England fox-hunting.  There, she wore out any number of men who tried to keep up with her.  And she did all this sidesaddle, laced into specially made leather corsets that at times constricted her 20-inch waist down to 16 inches. She had to be sewn in to her dresses once the hour-long process of tightening the corset was finished.



But no one was allowed to photograph her once she turned 30.  She felt that her celebrated beauty was beginning to fade, and her beauty was all she had. Anyway, her teeth were terrible by that time. She always carried a fan, and routinely hid behind it. It seems she was obviously anorexic in a time before that term was invented. She was probably bulimic, too–she had a private staircase built from her rooms to the kitchen in one of her houses so she could eat in private, and she was known to gorge on cakes from the royal baker Demel.


The Carriage Museum at Schonbrunn Palace has a display featuring portraits of Sisi’s favorite horses.  Her everyday sidesaddle is on display, too.  It’s hard to imagine jumping hedges and ditches while perched sideways on a horse, but that was really what Sisi did best.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art, history and surprising personalities of the past in Europe!