Women dressed in formal gowns, glistening gem stones hanging from their kid-gloved arms, and men donned in white or black tie, sip champagne in respite from the opera stage after their second round of the waltz: this is a splendour that is specifically European, and once you have had a taste of the opulence that is the opera ball, it’s hard to look at any other dance quite the same.
While the Vienna Opera Ball may be one of the most famous balls on the continent, thanks to an extensive PR campaign that attracts high-profile international celebrities, it should be noted that the first ever opera ball was in fact a Parisian affair permitted by Louis XV in 1715. It wasn’t until 162 years later that Vienna received permission to hold the first opera ball in the emperor’s opera house; interestingly enough dancing was forbidden.
Though the ball season was always popular during the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the First Republic, Prague didn’t receive its first opera ball until January 1948. It was, as Zuzana Vinzens, Director of the Prague Opera Ball, explains, “a place where intellectuals, artists, and people of society could all meet.” Sadly, as with so much of Czech history, the communist regime all but wiped out the tradition and for over 44 years the idea of the opera ball lay dormant only to be reintroduced to society in 1992.
With ball season in full swing for both Czechs and Austrians, it should be noted that there are a few differences between the two country’s opera balls. The debut of young women may be common in Vienna, it is not, Vinzens said, a tradition here due in large part to communist legay. “It [communism] changed society and this year we had a lot of discussions with Austrian groups and here in the Czech Republic [about bringing the debut to Prague], but I think it’s very difficult to start this tradition now.”
The other difference visitors will notice is the lack of the dance that causes giddy hysteria among ball participants in Vienna; the quadrille. During a recent trip to Vienna I had the privilege of attending a ball at the Hofburg Palace and was privy to the 8-count, 18th-century dance that was performed with such enthusiasm you would be forgiven if you thought it was the newest dance craze.
These differences aside, Vinzens, who hails from Litomyšl, the same hometown as that of famed Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, became the event manager in 2010 and, finally, the director of the Prague Opera Ball. It was under her tutelage that the ball has been transformed into a sophisticated affair that is considered one of the most prestigious social events on the Czech calendar. And while an event of this magnitude attracts celebrities and royalty, it is also cherished among those who genuinely love to dance.
“We have a lot of guests that come every year. They buy the tickets the moment they go on sale for the following year, they want their favorite seats in the opera,” explained Vinzens.
While past years have been centred around modern themse like Bond girls or royalty, this year is all about Strauss, the waltz, the ballet and the opera. From the opening of Johann Strauss II, Die Fledermaus Overture to the midnight celebration of the Radetzky March, great care has been taken to preserve the very essence that is the opera ball. “This year we will focus a lot more on the music and the dancing, not only the waltz, but the ballet,” said Vinzens.
(TIP: Need to brush up your dance steps? See our article “Join Prague’s Ballroom Blitz”)
Though Strauss and the dynasty’s history are the themes, 2009 Britain’s Got Talent winner Paul Potts is the special guest of honor for the 2014 ball. This was for Vinzens the culmination of a dream that she had been working on since 2011. “A funny thing happened; I gave an interview and said Paul Potts was my dream guest and one week later his manager contacted me, saying Paul has a free date on the day of the ball. To be honest, I wanted Paul Potts for a few years because every time I see his story I have goose bumps,” she said of her dream guest.
The melodic sounds of Strauss and Mr. Potts can also be appreciated throughout the evening as one sits and enjoys two sets of meals provided by Intercontinental Hotel catering, both of which are included in the ticket price. Guests can savor veal, duck confit, smoked trout and salmon tartar, and should one still be hungry after midnight, a second round of food will be sent out to quell the appetite of the most avid dancer.
Of course, one thing to keep in mind is that the dress code for all balls, but in particular the opera ball, is taken very seriously. Men must wear black or white tie, while women must wear floor-length evening gowns. If a woman chooses gloves may be worn (I personally think that it pulls the outfit together especially if the woman has chosen to wear a strapless gown) but are not mandatory. Those not adhering to the aforementioned dress code will not be let into the opera ball.
(TIP: Buying a ballgown for night feel a bit out of reach? You can rent one here.)
Though Prague may lack the debutantes and the quadrille, as well as the tireless press campaign of the Vienna Opernball, dancing the waltz or – after midnight – a more contemporary dance on the stage of the Prague State Opera is an experience unlike any other and afforded to very few. If you’ve considered going to the ball, this one is sure to be an extraordinary experience for first timers. Buy the ticket, enjoy the evening of food, culture, and Old World charm, if only for one enchanted evening.