Madame Butterfly

According to my mother, when I was little I used sing outloud all of the time the actions that I was doing. Observing other children, I am thankful to have realized that most children do this, and my oddity was not unique. Only, perhaps, I have not fully grown out of this habit: I have been told too often to write down my thoughts because I am “narrating.” While such a comment is really telling me to shut up, I does demonstrate that I still enjoy narrating the mundane aspects of my life. This is why I think that opera may be one of the best artistic passions for me to develop.

In English novelist Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade, a character notes that

The Departure Aria, a very important and romantic song – 
This damn door sticks,
This damn door sticks
It sticks no matter what I do.
It is marked ‘pull’ and indeed I am pulling
Perhaps it should be marked ‘push’

Of course, my own opera would be something like

Today I’ll do some yoga.
Oh, yes, I’ll do some yoga.
My yoga mat is wrinkly.
Maybe I’ll just savasana.
Where is my lavender-scented warm towel?

The Frenchman does not necessarily like opera (or yoga) but he will at least accompany me to as many operas as I like for he, too, yearns to be more cultured and able to thoughtfully participate in what are currently one-sided discussions with his opera-adoring grand-mère. Sometimes, as happened during our trip to the Staatsoper in Vienna, he falls asleep during the aria. Sometimes, I do too.

The Staatsoper or “State Opera House” was built in the late 1800s as the court opera house for the end of the Habsburg Empire. Though badly damaged by bombing by the Allied troops in 1945, the opera house remains one of the most beautiful in the world. Its main staircase, lined with statutes, is particularly beautiful.

Determined that while in Vienna for “wife’s choice” anniversary month weekend we would be as cultured as possible we chose to attend a performance of Madame Butterfly at the Staatsoper. Unfortunately, we also chose the “limited view” seats with the attractive price tag of 11 euros; in reality, this cleaver marketing scheme actually meant no view. This only contributed to the aforementioned nap.

The performance to see in Vienna is of Motzart’s Don Giovanni. Given that the opera was written for and originally performed in the Estates Theater in Prague, we have chosen to attend that opera here. The seats are better (when the stage is viewable) and the tale of the womanizing Giovanni more comic and entertaining than the tragic tale of Madame Butterfly as she waits, abandoned, for her lover to return. Naturally, I shall narrate the success of that cultural adventure here.

We are going to the opera. To the opera.
To hear the ladies signing.
Will we see the stage or be in standing room only?
Oh where is the bathroom? I cannot go because they will lock me out. No, I cannot go.
Too much champagne during intermission.

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Sachertorte

When a country dedicates a holiday to a chocolate cake, it must be delicious. But in a country that claims to be the coffeehouse and cake capital of the world,  such a cake must have divine inspiration.  Invented in 1832 for Prince Wenzel, the Sachertorte of Hotel Sacher has reached legendary status in the confectionary world and enjoys December 5 as its own gluttonous holiday.

After a failed attempt to secure post-opera seats in the hotel’s lauded Rote Bar Restaurant during our Vienna adventure, we “settled” for afternoon sweets in its outdoor cafe where we enjoyed a pre-opera snack instead of house coffees (with orange liquor) and sachertorte. The torte’s recipe is a carefully-guarded secret, but seems to consist of a chocolate sponge cake topped by a layer of apricot jam and a hardened chocolate icing.

Though the official rights to the name “The Original Sachertorte” belong to Hotel Sacher, Vienna’s other top confectionary, Demel, also claims co-ownership of the recipe. Of course, we had to try Demel as well, and we were split on the cake-off winner. (Though it must be noted that the waitstaff at Hotel Sacher was much superior to that of Demel where unfriendliness was extreme thereby giving Hotel Sacher the edge.)

If you cannot get away to Vienna, you can try to bake your own Sachertorte by following this recipe from the BBC. Make sure to serve the finished cake with a dollop of unsweetened, homemade whipped cream.

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Ostermärkte

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Each Lenten season, local Viennese artisans pack more than 40,000 eggs into individual cardboard dividers and carefully deliver them for display at the Old Vienna Easter Market in Freyung Square. This charming square, only a few blocks away from Vienna’s famed opera house, becomes a bustling marketplace in the spring for the sale of the eggs. They are the focal point of the Ostermärkte, and there is no better place in Vienna or the world to experience their delicate beauty. In fact, it was the allure of the Easter markets that brought us to Vienna this month.

With a peach-flavored wine spritzer of Easter-season wine (trust us, it was amazing) market goers attempt to weave through the maze of fragile eggs without knocking any over. At prices of 5 to 15 euros per egg, causing a palette to tip would be a very expensive purchase indeed.

The tradition of the Easter egg predates the event it has come to symbolize. Eggs were originally painted during pagan spring festivities to celebrate new life and recall images of spring flowers. It is no surprise that they have been incorporated into the Christian Easter season to thus represent the new life brought by Jesus and his resurrection.

The eggs are hollowed out through a blowing technique and hand-painted, a process that lasts many months. Though they come in all sizes, from tiny quails’ eggs to gigantic ostrich one’s, the most popular style is the chicken egg.

The traditional patterns are those of a solid color, generally red, with geometric designs, but, in modern times the eggs are designed to appeal to all tastes and ages, from sports-themed paintings for youngsters to religious depictions to fanciful spring animals. Any guesses as to which egg we chose for ourselves?

The more delicate masterpieces can each take an hour or more to complete while others involve multiple dyes and the application of glitters, jewels, embroidery and appliques. Each artist has his or her unique style though we were unable to discern how the artisans at the Freyung Ostermärkte tracked which eggs of theirs were sold as no stickers or other distinguishing marks are found on the eggs.

Of course, other springtime handicrafts are sold at the Ostermärkte: artisanal cheeses, spring liquors, wood working, and marzipan creations. There are bunnies to pet and folk bands to listen to while drinking some flower-scented grog.

At the end of this post is a video from Romania where hand-painted Easter eggs are also a traditional art, as they are in much of Central and Eastern Europe. The video is simply beautiful, and we invite you to watch it.

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Schmetterling

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Last weekend, we completed the third point of the golden triangle of Central Europe’s imperial cities in the most courtly of them all, Vienna. The weekend was full of culture and beautiful things: an opera, easter eggs, horses, choirs, and butterflies.

The Imperial Butterfly House in Vienna is the last of the Art Deco palm houses to be built on the European Continent and may be the most fabulous. Located on the site of the former Dutch Garden, the immense iron and glass Schmetterlinghaus was built in 1881 and contains three different climatic zones: a cold house, a temperate zone and a tropical climate with the temperatures maintained by a steam heating system. Originally built to house plant species from all over the world, the building is now home to several types of butterflies and an extraordinarily charming cafe, the Palmenhaus, where murals of monkeys dance amongst tropical foliage and a downpour can be escaped and enjoyed from a glass-enclosed paradise.

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