A great opera house often calls to mind great works that opened there. The Theater an der Wien here calls to mind one that did not. Mozart's celestial crowd pleaser "Die Zauberflöte" had its premiere at the nearby Theater auf der Wieden, long gone. The year was 1791, Mozart's last, but the opera's vogue continued, laying the cornerstone for the new house, which opened 10 years later. Once suburban, the location is now central, alongside the produce stalls and restaurants of the popular Naschmarkt.
For the impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, the librettist of "Die Zauberflöte" and the first to play the bird catcher Papageno, the move to a theater of his own was a dream come true. A statue of Papageno all in feathers, surrounded by triplet toddlers in matching finery, had a place of honor above the carriage entrance. For more than 60 years the Theater an der Wien remained the largest and best-equipped theater in Vienna and, by common consent, the most beautiful.
Any opera house that measures its age in centuries has a mystique, but how many can hold a candle to this one? In the early days Kapellmeister Beethoven slept here for more than a year, rent free. Over the years, several of his symphonies, two of his concertos, an oratorio and "Fidelio," his only opera, all received their premieres there. So did Hermine von Chézy's romantic farrago "Rosamunde," remembered only for Schubert's glorious incidental music.
In the 1860s Johann Strauss's "Fledermaus" inaugurated the golden age of Viennese operetta there; at the turn of the 20th century Franz Lehar's "Lustige Witwe" inaugurated the silver age. Straight plays appeared from time to time, as did shows of a risqué character. Once the chief of police had to inspect a diva's show of stocking as Helen of Troy. The programming reflected changing fashions as well as the business decisions of a succession of owners, few of whom escaped with their shirts. (Schikaneder lost his in just two years.)
Unlike the internationally renowned Vienna State Opera and the less prestigious Volksoper, which receive substantial subsidies from the Austrian state, the Theater an der Wien is owned and operated by the city of Vienna. When it first took it over in 1960, and for a good while thereafter, the offerings were nothing if not eclectic, populist one day, esoteric the next.
But elitists who turned up their noses at the likes of "Cats" had to consider how much worse things might have been. In the mid-1950s there was serious talk of razing the building. True, it had come in handy after World War II, when the imperial Oper am Ring lay in rubble and the Vienna State Opera needed a stage. But once the big house was rebuilt, many considered the Theater an der Wien a white elephant. Central Vienna was desperate for garage space and department stores.
Today the theater has adopted a new identity as Vienna's "new opera house." Roland Geyer, the 56-year-old native son and general manager, is not one to wallow in nostalgia. "For the Viennese generally, this is sacred ground, precisely because it breathes all that history," Mr. Geyer said recently in his office. "But I'm a modern person who lives completely in the present. I can appreciate the past, but I don't want to idolize it."
The house's checkered history would make it possible to justify almost any programming choice by reference to long tradition. "It's true that other genres have flourished here for decades at a time," Mr. Geyer said. "But the house was built for opera, and for the first two years of its existence it was exclusively an opera house. Now it is an opera house again, as it was meant to be."
The new opera house set sail in 2006 with a yearlong celebration of Mozart's 250th birthday. The scale is ideal for his operas, which continue to be performed here as they are at other opera companies in Vienna. But the pillars of Mr. Geyer's repertory are specialties the other institutions neglect: Baroque opera, works by Mozart's contemporaries and opera of the 20th century and beyond.
One early beneficiary of Mr. Geyer's open-mindedness and curiosity was the American composer Jake Heggie, whose "Dead Man Walking" proved a hit at the Theater an der Wien in a stripped-down, psychologically intense staging by Nikolaus Lehnhoff. Speaking from San Francisco recently Mr. Heggie described the experience as simply overwhelming: "What was a kid from Ohio and California doing here in this amazing historic theater?"
He will not be the last contemporary composer to wonder such a thing. Mr. Geyer promises a commissioned European or world premiere every year. The novelty for 2009-10 is "Die Besessenen" ("The Possessed"), Johannes Kalitzke's adaptation of a long-lost serial thriller by the 20th-century Polish experimentalist Witold Gombrowicz. Planned for future seasons are Daniel Catán's "Postino" ("The Postman"), in a co-production with the Los Angeles Opera starring Plácido Domingo; and Iain Bell's "Harlot's Progress," after the Hogarth etchings, starring Diana Damrau.
"I'm very proud of that," Mr. Geyer said. "This season we did 'The Rake's Progress,' by Stravinsky, which is inspired by Hogarth too. It's a modern classic. But I don't want to stop there. This has always been a house dedicated to the new."
Newness at the Theater an der Wien has many faces. The conductor for the Stravinsky was Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a giant of the modern early-music movement and a Theater an der Wien regular, in his first foray into 20th-century opera.
To Mr. Harnoncourt the house qualifies as a sort of period instrument. "I think you can say that," he said recently from his home in the Austrian Alps. "None of the structural changes backstage ever affected the essence. The sound has been preserved as in Beethoven's time."
But the sound of modern machinery can pose problems. Mr. Harnoncourt stopped a rehearsal for a Haydn opera once, objecting that the stage turntable — a huge piece of equipment — was humming "in the wrong key." Adjusting the pitch required adjusting the speed, meticulously, for each of several scene changes.
Apart from such annoyances the house and the management make him very happy. "Of course a lot depends on scenery," he said, "both on the materials and the design, which I always discuss with designers in detail. Also they've built a solid spruce floor for my musicians to play on. That's the same kind of wood they use for the soundboard of a violin."
The auditorium is a joy for the eye as well as the ear, exquisitely proportioned, not too big, not too small. Curly-headed weightlifters flanking the horseshoe of prime boxes lend a festive air. The interior was originally blue and silver, a canny choice at a time when ivory, red and gold — the current color scheme — was the exclusive prerogative of the court.
On a tour through the theater the view is best from the stage. Stepping out from the wings, you feel like a performer, whether you are one or not. "It's magical," the Hungarian-born operetta star Marta Eggerth said recently at her home in Westchester County, recalling her appearances at the Theater an der Wien in a new operetta of 1933. "I never had a big voice, but there it just carried. The gallery is far away, but you don't feel the distance. You feel that it's right there, right with you."
Today the house seats 1,000, half of the original capacity. In Schikaneder's time the ground floor and much of the galleries were given over to standing room. And because of space constraints backstage, the house is wedded to the stagione system: one production at a time (in this case one per month), no rotating repertory.
So the 80 theatrical performances per year are outnumbered by dark nights. About two dozen concerts thematically related to the operatic offerings improve the numbers, but not enough. Since the 2007-8 season, when season tickets were first offered, the subscriber base has more than tripled, to 3,300 for 2009-10. An expansion of the backstage planned for 2011 will make it possible to perform one production while the next is in rehearsals, reducing down time.
Still, this is a boutique operation and always will be. So it might seem that the more commercially oriented stages owned by the city — the Raimund and the Ronacher, which offer a steady diet of musicals — would help keep it going. But no.
"Our annual budget is 25 million euros," Mr. Geyer said, about $35 million. "The city gives us 20 million. Sponsoring covers another 3 percent of the budget, and the rest is earned income. The Raimund and the Ronacher receive 18 million euros a year. Last year, partly because of the recession, their business took a dive. Right now they're in the red, and we are in the black."
In the black: what music that would be to Schikaneder's ears. The only essential the house might be missing now is a phantom, Andrew Lloyd Webber's having come and gone nearly 20 years ago. Mr. Geyer, no fan of musicals, does not miss it.
"A ghost here?" he said. "Not really, unless you mean me. I'm around a lot. You never know where I'll pop up."