With five Michelin-starred restaurants, VIP service at the Vienna airport and business-friendly luxury hotels such as the Palais Coburg, Hotel Sacher and the architectural marvel of the Levant Parliament, Vienna is a luxury destination for both the business and private traveler (see www.wien.info). The city was the host of the FT Business of Luxury Summit 2013, at which The Luxury Channel spoke to Massimo Ferragamo. There is a saying, however, about all work and no play, and it is the winter season when Vienna really kicks its heels up….
The year was 1969. Aurelia Huber remembers her dress was pale blue Dupioni silk, with three under layers to the skirt and beading along the collar. Her hair was piled very high, and she laughs recalling the inordinate amount of hairspray her aunt, a hairdresser, used to secure it for a night of dancing. The final touch was an heirloom necklace containing 12 Burmese rubies, which had been retrieved from the safe for that evening’s occasion. Only the best when one is attending the Vienna Opera Ball!
For the fortunate ones in or travelling to Vienna, the season of the winter balls is upon us, and as the days reach their shortest and the holiday lights twinkle, the city becomes magical. From late December through March, the majority, and the most extravagant, of over 300 annual balls will take place.
Aurelia Huber (who at this year’s Opera Ball will be celebrating her 75th birthday) was 30 when she attended her first Opera Ball. “It was a treat for my birthday, and our tenth wedding anniversary. My husband worked for one of the companies that was doing something with the event, and, well, I still don’t know how he obtained those tickets. One doesn’t ask such things – why ruin the secret?”
Almost all of the balls are open to the public, each attracting between 200 and over 5,000 guests. For the larger events, year-round organisation is required, taking place in accordance with traditional rules and hierarchy, and the high-profile balls are normally under the patronage of the Federal President. A coveted pamphlet gives the date and venue, dress code, program and, of course, the admission charge. The loges, or private boxes, at the Opera Ball cost between 9,000 and 18,500 Euros, and they are highly sought after. The other prestigious balls, such as those held in the Hofburg Imperial Palace, are somewhat less costly.
The first major Ball of the season, The Imperial Ball, will have taken place on New Year’s Eve at the Hofburg, and the last of the great traditional Balls, organized by the couleur-wearing fraternity Rudolfin, will be held on March 5th, on the last Monday before Ash Wednesday. It’s worth noting that the Rudolfina Redoute, named for the 14th century Duke that founded Vienna University, is the only surviving Masked Ball of the many that used to take place.
Looking the part during the season is not just a matter of style – the right clothing is mandatory, down to the accessories. No matter how hip the Viennese look during the year, they tend to go very traditional for the ball season, and if the evening calls for something slightly ostentatious that one wouldn’t wear more than once….well, hiring a gown is certainly not looked down upon. If hiring, the earlier the better. Reservations for designer and period gowns and tailcoats are made months in advance.
Ladies wear a formal floor-length dress – cocktail-length dresses are not permitted – with enough skirt to allow free movement of the legs and give spectators the lovely vision of swirling dresses during the waltzes. Unless the lady is one of the Cotillion, her dress should not be pure white. It is also traditional for women to wear opera-length gloves, and leather-soled, medium to low-heeled shoes are recommended.
Aurelia still has the white silk dress she had made for the event. “Traditionally the younger ladies wore white, the debutantes, but by 1969, I was older, the fashions had changed and there were all sorts of colours, mod fashions. I chose white and blue, to be more classic, but everyone was so elegant. My dress was by a designer called George Halley. I bought it in New York, because I was nervous about wearing the same frock as anyone else!”
For gentlemen, a tuxedo is the starting point, with attendees of the Opera Ball held to an even higher standard. It is advisable to consult the Ball Guide Dress Code for the finicky particulars on the correct types of suit, cummerbund and timepiece (one valuable hint: go sans wristwatch). Gentlemen looking for something more traditional or Tyrolian can arrange an appointment at Tostman Trachten.
HISTORY OF THE OPERA BALL
In addition to the dress code and the hundreds of palms and lilacs found on the magnificent staircase, one of the things that makes the Vienna Opera Ball unique is the glorious combination of all the best of old and new – the latest fashions, social trends and international guests combining with the best families of Austria, with hundreds of years old traditions, classic music; the result is a thoroughly modern stage management of a traditional event.
Various balls, in both small and large establishments, were held in Vienna in the early 1800s. Evenings grew larger, and more opulent, moving from street dancing to bigger dance halls and on to more beautiful venues such as the Imperial Palace. Occasionally, history got in the way, and the Season was suspended. The revolution of 1848 and the demise of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918 were two times that the nation paused in their dancing, but not for very long. The first Opera Ball of the new Republic of Austria was held in 1921, and in January 1935, the newly christened Vienna Opera Ball took place. Politics and war soon took precedence again and on the eve of the Second World War, a final Opera Ball took place in 1939, by command of the government of the Reich in now-occupied Austria.
It was not until February 1956 that the tradition was resumed in the beautifully rebuilt State Opera House. Since then, the Opera Ball has been an act of state: every year Parliament declares the event the official “Ball of the Republic” and it is transmitted on television by the Austrian Public Broadcaster ORF to an audience of millions.
The Opera Ball is an extremely popular event where cultural icons from all over the world come together to mingle with luminaries like the President and the Chancellor of Austria. One of the other regular attendees to the evening is the Austrian entrepreneur Richard Lugner, who captures some attention each year with his selection of a famous (or infamous) celebrity to join his private box for the evening. In the past, he has paid for the company of people like Roger Moore, Faye Dunaway and Paris Hilton.
Desirée Treichl-Stürgkh has been organizing the amazing logistics of this event since 2008. “The Vienna Opera Ball is and has been our state ball,” she says. “However, at the same time, it has always been a mirror of its time. Be it art, culture, politics, economy or fashion, we can read a lot from its images. It perfectly reflects the year we live in.”
ATTENDING A BALL
A typical ball evening begins with dinner, as one must fuel-up for a late night of dancing. Most guests head to the ball venue around 7:30 pm, if they choose to see the opening ceremony, but according to Aurelia, the veterans of the Season will occasionally skip the ceremony and arrive at 11 or so, when the evening is in full swing. The level of pomp and circumstance varies from ball to ball.
The opening ceremony of the Vienna Opera Ball is always organised by the dancing and etiquette school Elmayer, and it is a sight to behold, as the beautiful debutants of the season go through choreographed steps in their white dresses. Once the ceremonies are completed, the ball begins.
The highlight of the dancing comes at midnight with the quadrille, a tradition since the 19th century. To assist the pairs and groups through this rather complicated dance, a dance master will first explain the procedure and then call out instructions, often leading to improvisation from the inexperienced, and good-natured confusion and laughter from the entire floor. The grandson of the Elmayer School’s founder, Thomas Schäfer-Elmayer, is the very popular dance master at one of the most prestigious balls, the Vienna Coffeegrowers’ Ball. Professor Schäfer-Elmayer will be organising the opening ceremonies as well as calling the quadrille at his 26th Kaffeesiederball.
The dancing at these evenings is not just traditional – while not exactly a disco, in the later hours of the evening, you will hear more modern music and the general party atmosphere grows. Buffets abound and champagne flows as the hours pass and the festivities continue, until 4 or 5am. At some affairs, the exit doors are staffed with gift distributors handing out Damenspende. A tradition dating from the first half of the 19th century, this is a token gift presented to the ladies. In the days of the monarchy, this might have been an elaborately crafted bijou such as a ornate or imported fan. Today, one’s companion might receive an ornament, Austrian chocolates, or even, as in the early days, an artistically designed dance card, upon which gentleman traditionally reserved his dance. Some balls also have a Herrenspende, so the men are not left wanting.
HIGHLIGHTS OF THE SEASON
Vienna Philharmonic Ball: 23rd January
Location: Vienna Musikverein
Tickets: start at 150 Euros
Johann Strauss Ball: 15th February
Location: Vienna Kursalon
Tickets: 137 Euros
Tel: +43 1 512 57 90
Russian Ball Vienna: 19th February
Location: Imperial Palace, Hofburg
Tickets: 500 to 1,000 Euros
Ball of the Vienna Coffeebrewers: 21st February
Location: Imperial Palace and Redoutensaele
Tickets: start from 125 Euros
Tel: +43 1 51 450 4112
The Vienna Opera Ball: 27th February
Location: Vienna State Opera
Tel: +43 (1) 514 44 2606
Bonbon Ball: 28th February
Location: Vienna Concert Hall
Tickets: around 85 Euros
Tel: +43 1 214 35 02
Rudolfina Redoute Ball: 3rd March
Location: Imperial Palace, Hofburg
Tickets: around 80 Euros
Tel: +43 1 405 48 11 20
Life Ball: 31st May
Location: City Hall