Genesis of the play
Alma in Vienna
The play, first performed in 1996 at the Vienna Festival
Week and made into a film in 1999, has long since been a cult
among connoisseurs. There are fans who have seen the performance
a dozen times; indeed the biggest "Almaniac" boasts
a total of 73 performances. Six summers long, the famous Sanatorium
Purkersdorf outside Vienna served as a venue for the show,
an empty Jugendstil building whose rooms had been fitted out
in turn-of-the-century style. One hundred and forty performances
took place there, all of them sell-outs, and in the process
23,044 candles and 2,736 torches were burnt, and at the funeral
banquet in honour of Gustav Mahler the audience was treated
to a vast quantity of baked chicken wings, boiled fillet of
beef and Viennese apple cake, as well as 3,762 bottles of
In its seventh year, the production found itself looking
for a new venue, and set off on tour. The first stop was Venice,
the city in which the young Alma once received her first kiss
from Gustav Klimt, and the place where she later travelled
with Oskar Kokoschka. In 1922, she bought a house there with
Franz Werfel, which she named Casa Alma. It was also in Venice
that, in 1934, her daughter Manon, born of her marriage with
Walter Gropius, fell ill. The girl, who was considered a stunning
beauty, died of polio just one year later, at the age of thirteen.
Alban Berg composed his Violin Concerto in her honour, dedicating
it to "the memory of an angel"; and naturally, besides
Mahler's symphonies, the audience hears this work too as they
trace the path of Alma's life.
On the Italian tour, English was the main language spoken,
though the scenes with Werfel were in Italian, some others
also in German. The beautiful Palazzo Zenobio on the Fondamenta
del Soccorso was rented for the show, a building dating from
the late 17th century. As in Vienna, here too, all interior
and exterior spaces were used for the performance, from a
splendid hall of mirrors on the first floor to the rooms leading
into the courtyard and the neighbouring garden. The rooms
were decorated in the style of the period, faithful down to
the smallest detail, and using exquisite furniture, old carpets
and paintings, music manuscripts, documents and letters. There
was a luxurious bathing hall and a steaming kitchen, an Alma
memorial and an Italian cafe. Everywhere were chandeliers,
burning candles, and all the props had been brought over from
Vienna - a process of "Almafication".
The atmosphere along the narrow canals of the Dorsoduro district
were ghostly, and the flames of torches burnt in the streets
around the magnificent Palazzo Zenobio. Through the arched
windows of the Palace shined, sumptuously decorated, shimmering
gold stuccoed ceilings. A funeral march by Gustav Mahler resounded
through the night. Death in Venice: in a gondola Mahler's
corpse was taken away for burial ...
To the archive: Venice
Alma in Lisbon
In the summer of 2003, the production went to Lisbon, where
Alma spent challenging and decisive months of her life. The
Werfels flew Vienna in 1938 for France when Austria fell to
the German army. In 1940, the Werfels along with Heinrich
Mann and his nephew Golo Mann flew by foot over the rugged
Pyrenees to Spain, ultimately leaving Europe for the United
States on board the Nea Hellas, the last regular ship from
Lisbon. Lisbon meant rescue for them. "There's no country
which helped as many refugees as Portugal in those days."
The small country became a transition for many well-known
refugees such as Heinrich Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger and Franz
An important part in the Portuguese version was given to
Consul-General Aristides de Sousa Mendes who was in charge
of the Portuguese Consulate in Bordeaux, in 1940. When history
catapulted him overnight to the position of custodian of human
lives hanging in the balance, he proved that he was far more.
He issued transit visas for entry into Portugal to an astounding
30.000 refugees, and opened up a refugee escape route where
none had existed. He rebelled against service orders and used
his office to overturn them, on behalf of humanity.
In her autobiography, Alma wrote: "I can never forget
those days of paradisiacal peace in a paradisiacal country,
after the torment of the previous months!" She is said
to have held court there like a fallen queen. And indeed this
is what she was: the queen among artists' muses. Lisbon was
a stage as if designed to tell of love and death and the depths
of desire, to tell the story of the last femme fatale
to whom this evening of theatre is dedicated: Alma Mahler-Werfel.
To the archive: Lisbon
in 2004 Alma was performed in Hollywood, Los Angeles, where
Alma lived for 12 years im emigration. Movies based on Werfel's
books where produced here and Alma was the center of the emigration-community.
The location found in Los Angeles is the unique and glamorous
Los Angeles Theatre direct on Broadway. It is one of the big
old Movie-palaces which was built from Charlie Chaplin in
To the archive: Los
In 2005, after 10 years, this theatrical journey retourned
to austria. In August 2005 Alma celebrated its 250th performance
in Schloss Petronell near Vienna!
To the archive: Petronell
In 2006 Alma went to Berlin, another important capital city
in her eventful life. Berlin is also the place where she lived
with Walter Gropius, where she enjoyed the golden 20s and
where Franz Werfels dramas had their debut performances by
Max Reinhardt on the German Theatre.
The Kronprinzenpalais on the boulevard Unter den Linden
is the ideal place for Alma. Between World War
I and World War II the Kronprinzenpalais was the first museum
for contemporary art and even influenced the foundation of
the famous MoMA in New York. All the painters from the expressionism
era had their work exhibited there. Amongst them also Oskar
Kokoschkas, who was Alma's lover at this time.
In the nearby State Opera House Alban Bergs Wozzeck"
(who is dedicated to Alma) had its debut performance in 1925
and at the Opernplatz Werfel's books where thrown into the
flames from the Nazis in 1933.
To the archive: Berlin
Alma at Austrias
In 2007 Alma returned to Austria, to the Kurhaus
sanatorium on the mountain of Semmering, a few minutes away
from Almas notorious summer residence in Breitenstein.
The Kurhaus was a sanatorium which was known as a high-class
hotel offering particular tranquillity and discretion. Director
Max Reinhardt stayed here, as did author Arthur Schnitzler,
and other eminent guests included Anton Wildgans, Raoul Auernheimer,
Jakob Wassermann, Otto Brahm, Gerhard Hauptmann, Ernst Lothar
and Alma Mahler's third husband, the writer Franz Werfel.
Josef Kainz, the most famous actor in German speaking culture,
spent the final weeks of his life here in the summer of 1910,
before returning to Vienna in August, where he died on September
20th in the Sanatorium Löw. (This was where, six months
later, Gustav Mahler, was also to die)
Alma Mahler-Werfel also regularly visited the Kurhaus, and
sent her daughter Anna there in 1929 when she was suffering
from jaundice. This led to Anna's marriage to publisher Paul
von Zsolnay, who had caused a sensation with Franz Werfel's
novel "Verdi" and spent several weeks on holiday
at the Kurhaus.
Besides an elegant reading room with a stunning view across
to the Sonnwendstein, Kurhaus guests had at their disposal
a music room and a billiard and games room. The Kurhaus was
designed as a reinforced concrete construction and marked
the transition from historicism to modernity. The combination
of Heimatstil (regional style) elements, palace architecture,
decorative Jugendstil and functionalistic architecture brought
about a fundamental change of style in the hotel architecture
of the Semmering and had exemplary status also beyond the
borders of Austria. The very decorative artistic interior
ornamentation is related to Josef Hoffmann's geometric Jugendstil
and uses elements which allude to the work of Otto Wagner,
such as the balustrade and the flower baskets on the staircase.
The parts of the building still preserved in their original
style include the luxurious dining room with original lighting,
mosaics, wall panels, dressers, and Thonet chairs made of
stained natural wood.
To the archive: Semmering
Alma in Vienna
Alma played in the city of Vienna for the first time in the summer of 2008,
indeed directly in the city centre, amid the enchanted pillars and
courtyards of the former Post- und Telegrafenamt on Börseplatz. The
performance even extended to the surrounding streets; for Gustav Mahler's
funeral service, the streets were stylishly transformed back to the period.
Scarcely anyone in Vienna knew of this vast old building which had been
neglected for many years. The entrances had been sealed up as if for ever,
the high windows were coated in dust, and nothing was revealed of the
building's interior; the only access was to a small post office on the
ground floor. Yet in this haunted house slumbered immense ceremonial rooms
commissioned in 1905 by Emperor Franz Joseph in honour of the new technology
of telegraphy. No-one had any notion of the splendour which gave Alma's
first venue in Vienna a truly imperial backdrop.
To the archive: Vienna