Austria's Most Famous Courtesan -- Katharina Schratt (1855-1940) was a noted actress who became the most famous German-speaking courtesan of the 19th century. Born into a respectably prosperous family in Baden bei Wien, and known for her emotive roles at the Imperial Court Theater, she met the Emperor Franz Joseph at a private audience for the first time in 1883, and again 2 years later at one of his balls. Depressed by the suicide of his only son and heir, and locked in a miserable marriage to the neurotic and highly unstable Empress Elizabeth ("Sissi"), Franz Joseph began a discreet dalliance with Katharina, eventually with the tacit approval of his wife. After Sissi's assassination by an anarchist in Geneva, the bond between Katharina and the emperor became ever more public. After the emperor's death in 1917, Katharina abandoned her summer villa in Bad Ischl and retired to her winter home in Vienna, which is today the site of a comfortable hotel. Despite her potent enemies, she was honored with the role of godmother for the children of many of her friends. Some of Katharina's godchildren are still alive today, many leading discreetly elegant lives in such cities as Vienna and London.

Sissi -- Eternal Beauty -- Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837-98), affectionately known to her subjects as Sissi, is remembered as one of history's most tragic and fascinating women. An "empress against her will," she was at once a fairytale princess and a liberated woman. It's not surprising that she has frequently been compared to Britain's Princess Diana -- both were elegant women, dedicated to social causes, who suffered through unhappy marriages and won a special place in the hearts of their subjects.

Elisabeth was born in Munich on Christmas Day 1837. She grew up away from the ceremony of court and developed an unconventional, freedom-loving spirit. When Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria met the 15-year-old, he fell in love at once. Franz Joseph and Elisabeth were married on April 24, 1854, in Vienna.

With her beauty and natural grace, Elisabeth soon charmed the public; but in her private life, she had serious problems. Living under a strict court regime and her domineering aunt and mother-in-law, the Grand Duchess Sophie, she felt constrained and unhappy. She saw little of her husband; "I wish he were not emperor," she once declared.

She was liberal and forward-minded, and in the nationality conflict with Hungary, she was decisively for the Hungarians. The respect and affection with which she was regarded in Hungary has lasted until the present day.

Personal blows left heavy marks on Sissi's life. The most terrible tragedy was the death of her son, Rudolf, in 1889. From that time on, she dressed only in black and stayed away from the pomp and ceremony of the Viennese court.

On September 10, 1898, as she was walking along the promenade by Lake Geneva, a 24-year-old anarchist stabbed her to death. To the assassin, Elisabeth represented the monarchic order that he despised; he was unaware that Elisabeth's contempt for the monarchy, which she considered a "ruin," matched his own.

Even a century after her death, Sissi's hold on the popular imagination remains undiminished. A TV series about her life achieved unprecedented popularity, and the musical Elisabeth has run for years in Vienna.

The Singing Ambassadors -- One of the oldest boys' choirs in the world, the Vienna Boys' Choir has been a symbol of Austria for more than 5 centuries. In 1498, Emperor Maximilian I, who was a great supporter of the arts, especially music, moved his court orchestra from Innsbruck to Vienna and added a dozen choirboys to the new musical group. At first, their primary task was to participate in the Mass at the Imperial Chapel of Hofburg Palace every Sunday. Since that time, the Vienna Boys' Choir has occupied a prominent position in Austrian musical life. Its first-class training has produced many highly qualified vocalists, violinists, and pianists. A number of famous composers also have emerged from its ranks.

Joseph Haydn, a member of the Cathedral Choir of St. Stephan's, sang with the court choirboys in the chapel of the Hofburg and in the newly built palace of Schönbrunn. Franz Schubert wrote his first compositions as a member of the Court Choir Boys. He was always in trouble with his teachers because he was more interested in composing and making music than in getting good grades. After Schubert's voice lost its alto quality in 1812, he had to leave the choir. At his departure, he noted on a musical score that is now in Austria's National Library: F. Schubert, zum letzten Mal gekräht (F. Schubert has crowed for the last time).

Great composers and teachers, such as Johann Joseph Fux, Antonio Salieri, and Joseph and Michael Haydn, greatly contributed to the musical quality of the Vienna Boys' Choir. As court organist, Anton Bruckner also rehearsed his own Masses with the choir. If a performance went particularly well, it was his custom to reward the boys with cake.

With the end of the monarchy in 1918, the choir changed its name and relinquished the imperial uniform (complete with swords) in favor of sailor suits. As early as 1924, the Vienna Boys' Choir, now consisting of four separate choirs, was performing in most of the world's famous concert halls. In the days of the First Republic, between 1918 and 1938, they acquired the sobriquet "Austria's singing ambassadors." Since that time, the Vienna Boys' Choir has performed with some of the world's best orchestras and nearly all the great conductors: Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Carlos Kleiber, Lorin Maazel, Riccardo Muti, and Sir Georg Solti. The choir has also made numerous recordings and participated in many opera and film productions. And, continuing a tradition that dates to 1498, the Vienna Boys' Choir performs every Sunday during the solemn Mass in Vienna's Imperial Chapel.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.