DESIGNING THE HIGHLIGHT OF BALL SEASON
Maria Großbauer, Vienna’s youngest-ever Opera Ball director on sugarcoated memories, the importance of storytelling and why debutantes should wear their hair up
On the way to meet Maria Großbauer, the new director of the most famous and prestigious ball in the world, I’m guided through hidden corridors between the backstage area and public access to the loge boxes. A clunky old-fashioned key opens the door to the Teesalon, a spacious sitting room with gilded moldings, ceiling frescoes and a mirror spanning an entire wall.
With Großbauer, it takes only minutes until we’re deep in nostalgic territory. “That’s the emblem of the Kaiser,” she says, gesturing to the wallpaper. “This part of the opera wasn’t hit by the bombing in WWII.” The Teesalon has remained completely intact and unspoiled since it opened in 1869, “Even the lamps.”
It’s that attention to detail that give the ÖVP’S recently appointed Spokesperson for Art and Culture a great understanding of nostalgia.
The opera has long been like a second home. Her father, Karl Jeitler, played trombone with the Vienna Philharmonic and performed at the opera for 38 years. This gives her “a really close connection” to the house. She is also married to the Philharmonic’s concert master.
But she has always felt a special attraction to music and the opera, studying flute, piano and later saxophone. She would meet her father for a glass of wine after a performance and talk, telling each other stories. She lights up at the memory.
“So it’s no coincidence that I went into advertising; I love stories.” In 2017, as the new director of the Opera Ball, she felt it was key to communicate the drama of the event, and the thrill of being part of a collective performance. “There’s a scene in an opera for every situation in life. Whether it’s a wedding, a love triangle, betrayal, death or jealousy. Opera is full of all that.”
Her storytelling from the past year’s Opera Ball garnered plenty of praise. Everything from the flowers to the Damenspenden (ladies’ gifts) to the drinks were themed with quotes and characters from opera. There was a cocktail called Liebestrank (The Elixir of Love, L’elisir d’amore), after an opera by Donizetti. The flowers were themed like Mozart’s Magic Flute, the magic forest with its colorful birds. “It’s the Opera Ball, after all.”
Since the turn of the Millennium, the radical changes in how we communicate have left us missing something, she says. “The tangible – meeting people, looking each other in the eye.” Or going to a ball “that lets you decelerate a bit. You prepare for it, decide who to go with, what to wear and where to get it. Will you go to dinner beforehand? It’s in contrast to our everyday life, like a retreat to another time.”
Illusion is necessary, of course, for the magic of nostalgia to work, she admits. It’s like relationships, she says. “At some point you only remember the good things. Thank goodness our brains do that!”
Großbauer believes Vienna needs a certain amount of nostalgia. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of.” While the opera ball may be exclusive, other balls are not, and everyone can go for walks in the gardens in the Belvedere and dance waltzes all through the city on New Year’s, she says. The nostalgia is immediate, because we live in it every day: The historic architecture, the coffeehouses and cultural institutions, like the Vienna State Opera.
“Some may see that as boring or tired, but I disagree. I think it’s wonderful and we have to preserve it. Vienna is concentrated beauty,” she smiles. “Absolutely.”
In her private life she is no less nostalgic. She and her sister send old postcards to each other. But she’s no Luddite. If she forgets a detail of a story she’s quick to find the answer with the help of her smartphone. Großbauer’s Biedermeier desk, which she restored herself, has a state-of-the-art Mac on it.
“Personally, nostalgia gives me a feeling of security, a base from which to venture into the crazy world we now live in.” And she has already changed a few things about the regulations of the Opera Ball. “I’ve made it obligatory for the debutantes to wear their hair up. The tiara just looks better when your hair is up.” This year, they will wear a delicate rose and gold sparkling tiara designed by Dolce & Gabbana and adorned with Swarovski crystals.
In addition to her new role in government, she’s already hard at work for the next Opera Ball on February 8, genuinely excited about the months ahead. “Anyone who wants to help can come on over.”