A historic European palace bathed in blue light. A talking horse. Two thousand guests in full length ballgowns and white tie. And a dancefloor that usually belongs to the gorgeous Lipizzaners.
Talking horses were clearly not invented by “Mister Ed”. At the 9th annual Fête Impériale, it was a Lipizzaner that spoke. The real ones are away on their summer holiday when the Spanish Horse Riding School is closed and they get to roam the lush green meadows of Lower Austria. Only one of them had to work for a few minutes: the stallion that goes by the very mighty name of Maestoso Superba had a chat with the ball’s moderator. His voice was provided by an Austrian comedian, but the stallion did a very good job of lip-syncing!
The performance took place in front of 2000 guests at Vienna’s world famous Hofburg Palace, the former residence of the Habsburg dynasty which is now a museum and the home of the legendary white horses (a small part of it is also occupied by the Austrian government).
The Fête is a brainchild of Spanish Horse Riding School general director Miss Elisabeth Guertler who formerly ran the famed Hotel Sacher. But turning an equestrian arena into an event location is nothing new. In fact, Austria’s archdukes and emperors used to do it for centuries when they, too, held their balls in that particular part of the palace. The tradition of the summer ball was started by empress Maria Theresia. Just like in imperial times, carriages arrived on the Michaelerplatz, the square in front of the entrance. The riding area turned into a dance floor and provided guests ample space to perform their Caprioles, Levades, Courbettes and the School Quadrilles. The open galleries of the Winter Riding School were open to take a stroll and the courtyard was used as a sort of food station. The majority of bars were in the Summer Riding School and for the first time ever, the date of the event did not coincide with the hottest day of the year – which up until last year where air conditioning hoses pumped cool air into the palace (in Habsburg times servants wiped away the royal sweat) – used to make attendees melt for all the wrong reasons. This year, the melting was emotional: it was the “Inflatable Horses” from Spain, a magnificent light installation, that made the biggest splash during the opening.
The guest of honor was Ursula von der Leyen, the current German minister of defense who received the “Prix d’École Espagnole d’Équitation de Vienne” for her work and emphasis on horse riding and preservation.
She herself is a huge horse fanatic and accomplished equestrian. The prize is a beautiful creation by Swarovski: a Lipizzaner statuette that resembles said star stallion Maestoso Superba, encrusted with no fewer than 12,527 crystals. Ursula von der Leyen who chatted with Austrian Federal Minister for Families and Youth Juliane Bogner-Strauss, was clearly the most coveted guest.
Another prize, the “Médaille de l’École d’Équitation Espagnole de Vienne“ was bestowed on dressage champion and four-time winner of the European junior competition as well as silver medalist at the European championships, Miss Cathrine Dufour from Denmark. The guest list was a mix of international aristocracy, European politicians, entertainers, sports icons and business heavyweights. Names like Habsburg, Esterhazy and Hohenlohe are as common at the ball as the uniformed marching bands and procession of the riders.
Sixty-eight lovely young debutantes opened the ball promptly at 9:45 pm after guests had already enjoyed a cocktail under the Michaeler Cupola on a green, not red carpet.
Opera stars Michael Schade and Rebecca Nelson sang arias with Schade also serenading the hostess with a solo performance.
Stage and film actors Christine Hoerbiger and Peter Weck enjoyed the opening and show from their loge.
Grand Dame, event coordinator extraordinaire and hostess Elisabeth Guertler posed with Georg Habsburg-Lothringen. The ‘von’ is not used in Austria, it has been out-ruled since 1918 when the country seized to be a monarchy, even though Georg and his older brother Karl are direct descendants of the last emperor ,Franz Josef. More than one guest dressed like the old ruler in a white uniform with red trimming and gold epaulettes – and tons of medals, of course! Even the beards were shaved in the style of the longest ruling Habsburg who governed the Austrian Empire from 1848 (when he was only 18 years old) until his death in 1916.
Blue was the inofficial color, but not everyone followed the rule and the dresses represented the whole spectrum of the rainbow. But Vienna’s diva of the operettas, Birgit Sarata glittered in a blue and silver gown. Spotted among the attendees: Life Ball boss Gery Keszler. Competition? No, he and Elisabeth Guertler are friends. And friends support each other’s events.
Designer Atil Kutoglu (his exquisite dresses are worn by Hollywood stars and supermodels) is another fixture at the Fête, as is former Miss Vienna and now business woman Evelyn Rille.
Riding is a sport after all, and so the ball also attracted Ski legend Karl Schranz and his wife Evelyn, who were joined by Herbert Prohaska, himself a legend as a former soccer star and now world cup commentator on national TV.
The Imperiale raffle has become another staple of the Féte: spa holidays, expensive skincare products and a stay at the exclusive Baur Lac Hotel on the shores of Lake Zurich, trips to the Styrian wine country, Lobmeyer glass and typically Viennese items like opera tickets and a sweet break at the Strudelshow Schoenbrunn were the coveted prizes.
Speaking of strudel, there is no ball without hungry dancers, who sustained themselves in the beautiful Palace courtyard where various restaurants catered everything from Frankfurters (the long, thin sausages Americans call Wieners, that taste so much better in Vienna) to Schnitzel (not a sausage but a breaded veal scaloppini) to Italian ice creams and chocolate tarts.