The ‘sunken chest’: The building of the Vienna Court Opera on the Ring
As the new Vienna Court Opera had no base to raise it above ground level, the Viennese called it the ‘sunken chest’
Satirical verse on Sicardsburg and van der Nüll.
Der Sicardsburg und van der Nüll,
Die haben beide keinen Styl!
Griechisch, gotisch, Renaissance,
Das ist denen alles ans!
The site for the new opera house on the Ring was chosen by Emperor Franz Joseph, who also footed the building costs from his privy purse. After numerous plans had been submitted in a public competition held in 1861, the choice fell on the architects August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll.
Even before it was completed, the new opera house was the object of scathing criticism. The filling in of the fosse around the old city walls had resulted in the Ring being one metre higher than expected, so that the opera house seemed to sit too low in the ground. Numerous satirical verses went the rounds on the subject of the two architects.
The imaginative descriptions of the opera house ranged from the ‘sunken chest’ to an ‘elephant lying down to digest its food’. The adverse comment also reached the ears of the Emperor, who on seeing the building is said to have remarked to an adjutant: ‘The people are right – the building does lie too low in the ground.’
Word of the Emperor’s disapproval spread and also became known to the architects themselves. The harsh criticism is said to have led to van der Nüll’s suicide on 4 April 1868, though he was by that time suffering from a grave illness. When Sicardsburg died only two months later after a serious operation, he was said to have been heartbroken at his friend’s death. Neither lived to see the day the Court Opera opened with Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
There was no lack of recrimination in the press. The story goes that Emperor Franz Joseph took his architects’ deaths so to heart that when he attended exhibitions, openings, and similar events, he thenceforth restricted his judgements to the lapidary formula: ‘It was very nice – I enjoyed it very much.’