Each year the Wiener Staatsoper turns into the world’s most glamorous and elegant ball room. Stars from in and outside the opera world come together for the Vienna State Opera Ball, a gala of unique splendour and allure. But the next day, the Haus am Ring belongs to the children when ostriches, tigers, bears and camels scurry around the previous night’s dance floor. Die Zauberflöte für Kinder (The Magic Flute for Kids) brings a sparkle to more than 7,000 children’s eyes and is just one of many successful education programmes the Vienna State Opera has to offer.

The house’s education programme “Junge Staatsoper” (“Young State Opera”) reaches around 30,000 children each year, with new works commissioned for children aged 6 years and older, special programmes for schools, children’s tickets and ballet performances by students of the Wiener Staatsoper Ballet Academy. It is a gripping programme that makes it difficult for the Staatsoper’s Director Dominique Meyer to choose his favourite: “That would be like asking a father if he has a favourite child. For me, the most important thing is that we create an atmosphere so that the children enjoy visiting.”

Works for children

Meyer believes that “if one provides well adapted opera performances for children, it is always a success”. However, certain rules should be followed to assure that success: “Firstly: children’s performances should never be any longer than 50-60 minutes; the children can’t concentrate longer. Secondly: one has to find themes that are attractive to children. They can come from tales, but they can also come from real-life situations. We have one children’s opera about ecology and we have recently presented an opera about patchwork families. These are very contemporary themes and they enable discussion between teachers or parents and the children. The third is that it is always better when you have children on the stage so that the children in the audience think to themselves, ‘Maybe I could do that myself.’”

This season the programme features three children’s operas: Matthias von Stegmann’s Wagners Nibelungenring für Kinder (Wagner's Ring for kids), Alma Deutscher's Cinderella and Die arabische Prinzessin oder: das wiedergeschenkte Leben (The arabic Princess or: the given life; a co-production of the Wiener Staatsoper and Superar, an association “which allows children who cannot afford music lessons to have a musical education”). Beyond that, conductor Witolf Werner and singer Hans Peter Kammerer present Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

The Ring for Kids especially has been “a major success” according to Meyer. “The children love it, it captures their attention and they laugh a lot because the production is very funny. And after seeing this, nobody is scared of Wagner!” This might have something to do with the somewhat different ending. Brünnhilde returns the Ring to the Rheinmaidens, a remorseful Fafner brings the remaining treasure and Siegfried and Brünnhilde finally get the happy end they deserve – a joyful wedding!

All these performances take place at the Vienna State Opera’s new (and smaller) stage on Walfischgasse, only a short walk down the road from the main house. After years in a tent on the house’s rooftop, children’s performances now have their very own venue.

Meyer points out that “Opera was created to generate emotions, and these are open to anyone who comes prepared with an open mind. Opera is the combination of instrumental and vocal music with a plethora of different arts: paintings, lights, costumes. The text, of course, is important; it facilitates discussions about many subjects. These could be historical, mythical, political, social… the list goes on. Opera is a way of understanding things that happen in our society. In these respects, it helps children grow up.”

Yet Meyer has to admit that he himself wasn’t interested in opera at all as a child. “I didn’t even know that it existed. I discovered opera by myself when I was 18. I do, however, have some wonderful memories of my son on my knees listening to opera in rehearsals and performances when he was just a few years old and how happy he was to discover opera.”

Offers for schools

With its live streaming platform live@home the Staatsoper is able to reach out to young people right across the country. “We use [it] to communicate with 164 schools: via special broadcasts, children can follow the rehearsal process – and they have the possibility to watch the performance later on.” It is a unique – and completely free – programme that gives students the possibility to get a glimpse behind the scenes and watch interviews with both performers and members of the Staatsoper staff to learn more about a career in opera. Furthermore, schools can sign up to live@school to show all opera and ballet live broadcasts the following day and a number of on-demand performances for a reduced price. Thereby around 12,000 students are given the chance to watch world class opera performances on computers or large screens in one of around 470 schools that regularly book these performances. Christoph Widauer, the mastermind behind live@home, adds the following with a smile (from our interview last month): “And sometimes we also establish an interactive back connection, so that we can see them cheer.”

In addition, school classes can book guided tours behind the scenes in seven languages – German, English, French, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese – visit a dress rehearsal, a show by the ballet academy or an evening performance at the Haus am Ring on reduced price tickets. Works like Die Zauberflöte (the grown-up version), The Nutcracker and Hänsel und Gretel are especially popular with schools and families. A newsletter for schools informs teachers and students about upcoming events and offers.

Vienna State Opera School

La bohème, Tosca, Carmen – many operas are enlivened by the performance of the children’s chorus. That is why the Vienna State Opera School offers talented children aged 8 and up a step into the limelight on the big opera stage. The children receive both singing and acting lessons three times a week for one year. After a short audition for each production, the young singers take part in the general and dress rehearsals and share the stage with the world’s best singers.

The Wiener Staatsoper has a lot to offer for young and future opera lovers and with dragons, ostriches and colourful costumes in their performances for children, sparkling eyes are guaranteed.