The prevailing image of Emperor Franz Joseph is that he disliked opera. He often only attended the first act[1] and if he was forced to sit through an entire performance, he often struggled to stay awake. In a letter to his wife on 30 October 1867, during a state visit to Paris, he writes

“dann ging ich ins théatre lyrique, wo Goumands neue Oper: Romeo und Julie, gegeben wurde und ich wieder recht viel schlief.”

[“then I went into the Théatre Lyrique, where [Charles Gounod]’s new opera: Romeo and Juliet, was performed and I slept truly a lot again.”][2]

The emperor’s political actions, however, demonstrate that Franz Joseph held opera, and music in general, in high esteem. The State Opera building he had built in Vienna, was among the first, if not the first, opera house in Europe that had cheap standing tickets which enabled citizens from the lower classes to enjoy opera as well.[3] Furthermore, during his travels through the Austrian-Hungarian crown lands, Franz Joseph always ensured that he could enjoy good operas even in provincial towns.[4] The Emperor’s favourite composers were Gioachino Antonio Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi.[5] Thus the common notion of Franz Joseph as an opera-hating (or even culture-hating) man should be reconsidered.

His wife, Empress Elisabeth, is renowned for her love of opera and regularly attended opera performances. She visited the Wagner ‘Festspiele’ in Bayreuth in 1888, her face hidden behind veils.[6] The operas performed during the 1888 edition of the ‘Festspiele’ were Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal.[7] In the newly built opera house in Vienna, which was finished in May 1869, the architects designed a special salon room in Renaissance style for the Empress, with violet walls decorated with gold ornaments, the table engraved with Elisabeths monogram. The ceiling was painted with three scenes that contain themes from Elisabeth’s favourite opera, Carl von Weber’s Oberon. The middle painting depicts Oberon and Titania as rulers of the fairy kingdom in a shell-wagon pulled by swans.[8]

The Romantic opera Oberon, or The Elf’s Oath by Carl Maria von Weber, originally composed in English, premiered in the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, in 1826. The libretto was written by James Planché,[9] based on the Romantic 1798 heroic poem with the same name by Christoph Martin Wieland, which in turn was based on the thirteenth-century French epic romance Huon de Bordeaux.[10] Planché’s libretto combined elements from Shakespeare’s plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest.

Painting 'Scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Titania and Bottom' by Erwin Landseer
Erwin Landseer  (1802–1873). ‘Scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Titania and Bottom‘ (between 1848 and 1851). Oil on canvas, 82 x 130 cm (32.28 x 52.36 in).
National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, 4658-3. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Oberon opera was translated into German[11] and premiered in Leipzig on 23 December 1826.[12] The plot centers on Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the Fairies:

When Oberon, King of the Fairies quarrels with his queen Titania, it is the humans, of all creatures, who are called upon to solve the problem. Titania will only consider reconciliation, on the condition that a human couple affirm their love within a life or death scenario. Oberon’s servant Puck already has somebody in mind – the crusader Hüon of Bordeaux, who is in love with Rezia, daughter of the Calif.

Their love, a European-Arabian union, is however threatened by perils of a cultural nature. Rezia twice faces being forced into marriage, as well as being kidnapped by pirates and sold in a slave market. Even courageous Hüon cannot confront these dangers in his own strength. In their direst need, Oberon’s magic horn comes to the two lovers’ aid, even tearing them from the clutches of death. Titania seems unbothered by this intervention. She appears at the end of the opera happily reconciled at the side of her king Oberon – two dei ex machina who demonstrate that the world of fantasy is tightly intertwined with the real world – regardless of any cultural barriers.[13]

I have not been able to ascertain the exact date on which Elisabeth first saw the Oberon opera (her daughter Marie Valérie noted in her diary that she saw the opera on 1 January 1882[14]), but it made a profound impact on her. In Elisabeth’s Poetic Diary, which she kept from 1879 until her son Rudolf’s death in January 1889, Elisabeth often referred to herself as Titania and her husband Franz Joseph as Oberon.

Oberon‘ performance in Frankfurt (1986), audio only.

Elisabeth’s biographer Brigitte Hamann comments that the Emperor’s character was totally unlike Oberon’s.[15] The walls and ceiling of Elisabeth’s bedroom in the ‘Hermesvilla,’ which Franz Joseph had built in 1881 in an attempt to get his ever-travelling wife to spend more time in Vienna,[16] features frescos depicting scenes from the Midsummer Night’s Dream and, like all her bedrooms, the main painting beside her bed depicts Titania and the donkey.[17] Elisabeth identified herself with the Fairy Queen Titania so much, that she signed the note accompanying the manuscript of her poetic diary with ‘Titania:’

'Liebe Zukunftseele!' letter Empress Sisi
© Swiss Federal Archives, Bern. J1.64#1000/1361#55*

Liebe Zukunfts-Seele!

Dir übergebe ich diese Schriften. Der Meister hat sie mir dictiert, und auch er hat ihren Zweck bestimmt, nämlich vom Jahre 1890 an in 60 Jahren sollen sie veröffentlicht werden zum besten politisch Verurteilter und deren hilfebedürftigen Angehörigen. Denn in 60 Jahren so wenig wie heute werden Glück und Friede, das heißt Freiheit auf unserem kleinen Sterne heimisch sein. Vielleicht auf einem Andern? Heute vermag ich Dir dies nicht zu sagen, vielleicht wenn Du diese Zeilen liest – Mit herzlichem Gruß, denn ich fühle Du bist mir gut,


Geschrieben im Hochsommer der Jahre 1890, u. zwar im eilig dahinsausenden Extrazug [18]

[Dear Souls of the Future!

I deliver these writings to you. The Master [poet Heinreich Heine] has dictated them to me, and he has also determined their purpose, as 60 years after the year 1890 they should be published to benefit political prisoners and their relatives in need. As 60 years from now there will be as little happiness and peace as today, i.e. freedom to settle ourselves on our little star. Maybe on another? Today I cannot ask you to tell me this, maybe when you are reading these lines – With warmest regards, as I feel you are good to me,


Written in the midsummer of 1890, and in a hastily thereto hurtling express-train]


[1] As relayed by a tour guide during a tour through the Wiener Staatsoper.

[2] G. Nostitz-Rieneck (Ed.), Briefe Kaiser Franz Joseph an Kaiserin Elisabeth 1859-1898 (Wien: Verlag Herold, 1966).

[3] As relayed by a tour guide during a tour through the Wiener Staatsoper.

[4] Description of the 2016 exhibition Kaiser Franz Joseph und die Musik [‘Emperor Franz Joseph and Music’] in the Musikverein in Vienna.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Elisabeth Leijnse, Cécile en Elsa, Strijdbare Freules: een Biografie (Amsterdam: De Geus, 2015) 70.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Brigitte Hamann, Elisabeth: Kaiserin wider Willen (München: PIPER, 1985).

[9] Libretto in English:

[10] Wikipedia, s.v. “Oberon (Weber)”

[11] Libretto in German:

[12] Wikipedia, s.v. “Oberon (Weber)”

[13] Plot synopsis from the Bayerische Staatsoper:

[14] Marie Valerie von Österreich, Marie Valerie von Österreich: das Tagebuch der Lieblingstochter von Kaiserin Elisabeth, 1880-1899 (München: Langen Müller Verlag, 1998) 27.

[15] Hamann, Kaiserin wider Willen.

[16] Wikipedia, s.v. ‘Hermesvilla’; Hamann, Kaiserin wider Willen.

[17] Hamann, Kaiserin wider Willen.

[18]; Brigitte Hamann (Ed.), “Introduction,” Das Poetische Tagebuch (Wien: VÖAW, 1997). Full text online (except the Introduction):