Almost 60 years of Austrian tradition celebrated in America: The Viennese Opera Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City
February 2013: Viennese Opera Ball, New York City
Photos and text (c) Bettina M. Gordon. All photos shot with my little Canon point-and-shoot.
(for my German speaking audience: this is my story on the ball’s patron, Dieter Beintrexler, for the magazine FIRST Alles Walzer in New York)
Hailing from a city that once was the intellectual hub of all of Europe and that still is beloved for its music, chocolate and Lippizan horses, my heart beat a bit faster when the invitation to this year’s Viennese Opera Ball in New York arrived in the mail a few weeks back. It is lovely and heart-warming to me to have the opportunity to experience a piece of my home country here in my country of choice.
You see, Vienna has a long standing tradition of throwing outlandish and ostentatious parties during the dreary and cold winter season. By the late 18th century nobility and high-society started to meet at the Imperial Palace, City Hall, Schönbrunn castle and palaces around town to celebrate the Ball season and enjoy a night of ball room dancing, impressive gowns and attires, great etiquette and intrigue. And guess what – this tradition has not stopped!
Every year more than 200,000 visitors enjoy Vienna’s more than 300 ballroom events (not counting the Austrians, who love this tradition) and let themselves be enchanted by the elegant ball gowns and the famous waltzing melodies. The most well-known ball of the season is the Opera Ball, which takes place in the Opera house and is broadcast live around the world. According to TourMyCountry.com the Vienna Opera ball gathered revenues of 20 million dollars (in 2007) so you can imagine the economical value the ball season has to Austria.
In New York City, however, the Vienna Opera Ball is one of the great charity galas benefitting worthy non-profit organizations – the 58th ball of its kind was dedicated to raising funds for the famed Carnegie Hall this year.
Like its Austrian sister ball, the Viennese Opera Ball at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel follows the same tradition and etiquettes that already enchanted Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Sissy in the mid 1800’s. What worked for Franz Josef and the Empress, certainly worked for Joshua and I last week:
Tradition number one: the opening ceremony. The year’s debutants – usually young ladies and gentlemen between the ages of 16 and 18 – are formally introduced to society. This is still a very big deal in Austria. The debutants take intensive ball room lessons before giving their debut and commence the ball with a well choreographed opening ceremony. I remember when I was a debutant and how my dance partner and I had butterflies in our stomachs. I believe we made it through the ceremony without any major missteps – or at least none that I would remember. But I also forgot the name of my then debutant partner. So maybe we totally flunked – who knows!
Tradition number two: Alles Walzer! At the end of the debutants dance the master of ceremony grabs the mic and declares – in improper but somehow traditional German – “Alles Walzer”, which means everybody is now invited to the dance floor to dance the first walzer of the night. Usually this is a “links walzer”, a walz where the couple twirls counter-clock-wise instead of swinging to the right. It sounds like a not a big deal – but I challenge you to try it. It’s humbling.
Walzing and photographing is not an easy feat – regardless of whether you twirl to the left OR to the right. Note to self: enroll us in ball room lessons, we need some upkeep. And ask somebody else to take the photo of us dancing next time.
Tradition number three: every Ball has its own flair and styling. The Opera Ball is one of the most elegant affairs, while the Flower Ball or the Ball of the Hunters and the Ball of the Coffee House owners (yes, many gilds have their own balls) is distinctly different in decoration and maybe even in outfits. As you can see, the Waldorf-Astoria was very elegantly decorated and this was an evening of elegance and sophistication.
Tradition number four: formal dinner. Well, actually this is not an Austrian tradition but the American twist to the evening. In the Opera in Vienna, about 5.000 people squeezed onto the dance floor on February 7th, and there is no formal sit-down dinner but only dancing until the midnight buffet is opened (more of that below). In New York, however, we feasted on lobster and fish appetizers, filet mignon (which was impressively well done given the fact that there were over 600 guests in the room) and chocolate mousse dessert. I must say, I am liking the American twist to our Austrian tradition.
Tradition number five: guess the guests! I admit that I looked at the gentleman on the right and thought that he looks rather familiar, but I wasn’t sure where I had met him. Turns out I “met” him on TV: Dancing with the Stars pro Tony Dovolani and wife Lina Dovolani; brothers Maks and Val Chmerkovskiy; and Miss Teen USA Logan West were among the guests. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images).
Tradition number six: dress up to the nines. The Opera Ball is a very elegant and white tie affair. I repeat, a white tie affair (as you can see with the Dancing Stars). Even a tuxedo would have been underdressed. While my dress was fitting the occasion, my husband’s attire was not. As the Austrian woman in our relationship, I take full responsibility for this blunder. I was busy traveling in the week leading up to the Ball and somehow never read to the end of the invitation, where it clearly states: white tie and decorations for men. I did not give my man the appropriate direction. And there he was, all in black among the White Ties. Oops. Major fashion faux-pas. Turns out, I was the only one embarrassed by my oversight and nobody else seemed to take offense. Here’s Joshua’s take on Austrians: “As much as the Austrians are people with strong traditions, they also have a great sense of humor. Nobody made me feel the least bit uncomfortable and I never got so much as a sideways glance.” It’s true: we celebrate traditions but are no sticklers about it.
Tradition number seven: it’s not a real Viennese Opera Ball until the horse carriage delivers the ballet dancers! Following the etiquette and traditions, we enjoyed ballet performances, a presentation of Josef Haydn’s “Die Feuersbrunst” (“The Burning House”) and a midnight Quadrille but the most impressive highlight was the horse carriage entering the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria. Talking about grand entrance!
Tradition number eight and my most favorite one: the after-midnight buffet! Now this is classical Austrian again. After hours of walzing the dancers need fuel again and are traditionally served the more rustic foods like goulash, sausages and bread. The Tanz Bar and post-ball supper (between 1AM and 4AM) at the Waldorf did not disappoint as you can see. We enjoyed spaetzle, goulash, red cabbage and sausages with mustard and sauerkraut. There was also a crepes station (Palatschinken) and more music and dancing.
Tradition number nine: dance (and eat) the night away. The famous clock in the lobby of the Waldorf-Astoria is our witness that confirmed that we had an awesome time all through the night!
For information on the Viennese Opera Ball: http://www.vienneseoperaball.us/
Category: Explore the World With Me