Home Page of William Osborne and Abbie Conant

The New York Times

March 2, 2000


(Sent to various lists March 2, 2000


No Dance Partners? Austria

Becomes a Wallflower



VIENNA, March 1 -- Elisabeth Gürtler, the heiress to the Sachertorte fortune, is a discreet woman who keeps the original recipe for that gorgeous chocolate cake in a safe and her deepest feelings about the fiasco surrounding this year's Vienna Opera Ball to herself. "I'm certainly not happy," is all she will say.




Why should she be happy? True, Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan, is coming. So, too, is Ludmilla Kuchma, the wife of the Urkainian president. But that is the short, complete list of international dignitaries expected at Thursday's ball, the social event of the year in perhaps the world's most socially conscious city.


Shocking, really. And painful to Ms. Gürtler, who runs Vienna's Sacher Hotel, and has spent much of the last year organizing the ball, which traditionally caps this city's extremely intense ballgoing season.


Her idea, and it seemed good at the time, had been to restore all the cachet of the Opera Ball -- a little vulgarized in recent years -- by bringing back what she called "some of the old etiquette and protocol" and extending a formal invitation to the Portuguese president, Jorge Sampaio, to be the guest of honor at the famous Opera House on the Ringstrasse.


This appealed to Thomas Klestil, the Austrian head of state and, as such, honorary president of the Opera Ball. An invitation to Mr. Sampaio, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, to make a state visit to Austria between March 1 and 3 was extended and accepted.


Orchids for the ball were ordered from Madeira, port from Oporto, hors d'oeuvres from a Lisbon caterer. "And then," said Ms. Gürtler, wringing delicate hands adorned with two tremendous diamonds, "this thing with the government happened, this terrible, terrible thing."


The "thing" in question, of course, was the formation last month of a governing coalition including the rightist Freedom Party of Jörg Haider. European Union governments reacted by freezing relations with Austria. Into that deep freeze, at the pace of a fox trot, vanished Mr. Sampaio's long-planned visit.




The Opera Ball, Austria's answer to Ascot, has known some disturbances in the past. Demonstrations against the waltzes of "capitalist pigs" began in the 1970's; they culminated in 1989 in clashes that left more than 50 people injured. But never had the ball been snubbed by its guest of honor.


It was too late, of course, to cancel the order for 18,000 Madeira orchids that will adorn the Opera House commissioned in 1854 by Emperor Franz Joseph with a decree saying it should be used "for the performance of operas and ballets as well as for the celebration of opera balls."


Too late, also, to cancel the shipments of red and white Portuguese wines, the contract with Portuguese musicians, the snacks and other accouterments from Lisbon.


"It's a pity that circumstances did not permit what we planned," said Manuel Alexandre, the Portuguese commercial attaché here, a lonely figure who will now be his country's sole diplomatic representative at the ball. "But we did not invent the world. We follow what the world says."


Austria and Portugal, of course, ruled a fair bit of the world at one time and have seen enough ups and downs to be philosophical about this contretemps. Still, the past few weeks have been singularly rough.


Swarowski, the prominent Austrian glassmaker, canceled its box (the Opera's 10 boxes go for just over $14,000 each). The chief executive of the Bayer chemical corporation also canceled. And Richard Lugner, a construction magnate who is Austria's answer to Donald Trump, ran into some undreamed-of difficulties.


Mr. Lugner, who is very rich, has made it a habit in recent years of paying famous women to accompany him to the ball. On his arm, at a price, he has had Sarah Ferguson, Sophia Loren and others.


This year, he first tried to pay Catherine Deneuve to accompany him, but she said she did not want to bump into Mr. Haider. His next port of call was Claudia Cardinale; no luck, for similar reasons. Third came Jacqueline Bisset, who also declined after receiving advice from Austria's most famous export to Hollywood, Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Mr. Lugner, in the end, had to be satisfied with Nadja Abdel Farrag. Who? She is the hostess of a German show called "Peep" that earns its ratings by taking peeps at people's sex lives.


This was not what Ms. Gürtler, 49, had in mind when she took on the job of organizing the ball for the first time this year. Indeed, she wanted to raise the tone. "A ball where you have to pay a woman to come, this cannot be very noble," she observed.


Still, there have been some successes. Even Mr. Haider has not been able to dampen the Viennese passion for balls. This is a place where Austrians from police officers to psychotherapists organize their own nights of waltzing. All 4,100 tickets for the Opera Ball have been sold at over $200 each.


A total of 320 debutantes, including 50 young ladies from abroad, are "coming out" despite what Ms. Gürtler called "these terrible images on television channels throughout the world that suggest this country is going through a revolution."


Government ministers, including Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and the new leader of the Freedom Party, Susanne Reiss-Passer, are showing up in force to do their quadrilles despite warnings from opponents that a large demonstration will be held outside.


"This is a ball under the state's patronage, and I'm not going to be cowed into missing it," said Karl-Heinz Grasser, the 31-year-old finance minister and a member of the Freedom Party.


One person not attending is Mr. Haider, who quit this week as leader of the Freedom Party. "He did not buy a ticket," Ms. Gürtler said. She does not like Mr. Haider's party, but has been outraged by the European Union's response to Austrian democracy at work.


As for Mr. Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, he will be in the government box with President Klestil admiring the fruits of Portuguese culture -- an eclectic gathering worthy of the mingling of nations that once distinguished the Austro-Hungarian Empire.


Prince Metternich, a statesman of that empire, one said that "Asia begins" on a street leading out of Vienna called the Rennweg -- a reflection of the view that the city was a last bastion of European values perched on the perilous edge of the east. But on Thursday, at least, Asia will begin at the Opera Ball.