Vienna’s Moment: Learning to Love Opera in the City of Music

A bluegrass fiddler travels to Vienna to learn how to sing—and how to embrace the city’s most famous art: opera.

Vienna’s Moment: Learning to Love Opera in the City of Music

Photograph by François Coquerel

The busker singing outside the electronics store hit an impossibly high note. “That’s gotta be a high C,” I said. “It’s at least a C,” replied Becki. The two of us tried it ourselves. Our shrieks sounded nothing like the clear, ringing vibrato we had just heard from the woman in the black leggings and the puffer jacket. I coughed slightly and touched the scarf that I had coiled around my neck like a diva. “Sore throat,” I said. “Must try to protect my voice.”

In Vienna, even the street performers sound like opera stars. The birthplace of Schubert, the workplace of Mozart, and the home of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, Austria’s capital city is stuffed with more singing talent than its pastries are crammed with cream. If you want to learn to sing, there’s no better place to learn from the best.

I have no operatic aspirations. In fact, my relationship with the art form is a slightly bruised one. I grew up playing classical violin in orchestras, but I didn’t really encounter opera until I was 21, when I fell for a guy who was passionate about it. He was a few years older than I was, had a well-paid job in an investment bank, and knew how to julienne a carrot: I was overwhelmed by the sophistication. So I devoted my spare time to Verdi and Donizetti and lost myself in librettos, just to try to impress him. Two months later, he dumped me. Ever since, opera has tended to bring out my cynical side. Arias have lost their romance; a single trill can harden my heart.

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Other forms of singing, however, I love. Show tunes, country songs, jazz standards—I’ll belt them all out in the privacy of my apartment. Just not in public. My sister is a fantastic singer who trained in musical theater, and her excellence has made me timid. These days, I’ve swapped my classical training for bluegrass, and when my band plays, I hide behind my fiddle and maintain a safe distance from the microphone. I’d assumed it was too late now to become any good at singing. My bandmate Becki disagreed. She believes it’s just a matter of taking your voice as seriously as any other instrument. And so we had decided to travel to Vienna, where I would take my first singing lesson and maybe rid myself of some of those opera demons.

Photo at left: a horse and buggy in Vienna. Photo at right: a marble sculpture.

In Vienna, culture is everywhere.

Photographs by François Coquerel

On our first day, we were discovering a musical culture so rich that even the city’s jeweled and marbled concert halls can’t contain it. Straight after our encounter with the busker, we stumbled across a crowd of a hundred or so spectators sitting on the sidewalk to watch the State Opera’s performance of Faust being relayed live on a giant screen. An old man with a walking stick and an air of connoisseurship sat comfortably next to a pair of young tourists, and a set of smartly dressed ladies shared a bench with a homeless man. All were silently fixated on the chorus, its performance literally larger than life.

Beneath our feet, the names of famous composers who had lived and worked in the city were etched out in a walk of fame: Antonio Vivaldi, Anton Bruckner, Franz Schubert, Jean Sibelius. We moved quickly over them; we had another musical appointment to keep in the southwest of the city that evening, and it didn’t involve Tosca or Carmen or Don Giovanni.

In my hunt for a singing teacher, I had one proviso: I didn’t want to warble like a Wagnerian handmaiden. The legacy of Mr. Sophisticated Ex-Boyfriend means that while I can still be impressed by the sheer prowess of opera singers—their ability to reach notes most humans could only squeak, the immense power of their lungs—these skills leave me cold. Plus, I find all the melodrama off-putting. I’m always surprised that something that looks and sounds so histrionic can move people to tears.

No, if I was going to find my voice, I preferred to imagine some sort of sultry, brassy charm, the kind of thing you’d get if you could travel back in time and persuade Peggy Lee to listen to some Beyoncé. Before our trip, I had made contact with an orchestral musician in Vienna who recommended we go to a “salon” at the home of a jazz singer named Anna Laszlo. Anna moved to Vienna from Hungary to pursue her musical career, and she gives lessons when she isn’t busy performing or recording. Once a month, she invites her students, friends, and anyone else who hears about it to come to a gig held in her own apartment.

I preferred to imagine some sort of sultry, brassy charm, the kind of thing you’d get if you could travel back in time and persuade Peggy Lee to listen to some Beyoncé.

On our first evening in Vienna, Becki and I headed to the address we’d been given, the second floor of a 20th-century tenement building. It’s the kind of elegant affordable housing that Vienna has in abundance. In the living room, a grand piano nestled cozily in a corner window, with a mismatched medley of sofas and chairs facing it in rows. These filled gradually with two dozen audience members in suits, cocktail dresses, and slippers that they had changed into at the door. One gentleman admired Becki’s gingham-check shirt. “This is very traditional in Austria,” he told her. She was still blushing from the compliment when he added, “Of course, traditionally we’d use it as a tablecloth.”

Anna wore a caftan-style dress, and her thick blonde hair was woven into loose braids, the kind a Disney prince would cross a thorny wasteland and scale a castle for. Her three- piece band played jazz standards—“Sweet Georgia Brown,” “All of Me”—and Anna’s rich voice wrapped itself around the familiar words and rhythms like cashmere. A grizzled man with a thick gray mane joined in, juggling four different harmonicas between his fingers and his lips, and Anna introduced him as her partner, Wolfgang. The band started to play Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli’s “Minor Swing,” and as the song evolved, they began to scat together, each answering the other in a volley of improvisation. The syllables might have been meaningless, but every phrase Anna sang was loaded with expression: teasing, nagging, scolding. “It’s like watching them argue over breakfast,” I whispered to Becki.

As the evening progressed, it transformed from a formal gig to a house party. A couple of young men Wolfgang had spotted earlier that day, when they’d been busking Reinhardt tunes in the Museum Quarter, arrived with their guitars and whipped up some gypsy jazz. A few folks danced on the parquet floor, their house shoes sliding underneath them.

Anna agreed to give me a singing lesson later in the week and suggested various venues in the city that offered something different from the classical and opera music that it was famous for. There were jazz and swing clubs, and plenty of folk musicians still played Schrammelmusik, the 19th-century Viennese music that combines violins with a double-necked guitar and a clarinet.

A gentleman sits reading a newspaper in a café in Vienna.

A well-dressed Viennese man enjoys a newspaper over a meal.

Photograph by François Coquerel

High culture may be Vienna’s most visible and marketable feature, but it is by no means the whole story. In fact, the city’s surprisingly diverse music scene was about to launch a surprise: an entry into the Eurovision song contest.

Becki is a huge fan of Eurovision; I am less so. This display of musical oddities—Icelandic boy bands bouncing around in neon outfits, German techno performed by milkmaids— takes place one night a year, when member countries of the European Broadcasting Union send acts to perform an original song. (On this occasion, it was being staged in Denmark.) The whole caper is broadcast across Europe and beyond, and enthusiasts host parties in their houses and revel in the high camp of it all.

At Becki’s insistence, we watched it in our hotel room, working our way through the minibar, joining in the choruses of songs in languages we understood and a few that we didn’t. Austria’s entry was Conchita Wurst, a drag artist who had made her name in the clubs of Vienna. She sang a power ballad, wearing a gold fishtail dress that could have graced a Bond girl and sporting a Ben Affleck–style beard.

We fell asleep before every country had cast its vote, and when we woke up the next morning, Conchita was champion. The newspapers were full of panegyrics to her victory, and TV channels were mooting a homecoming parade at the Presidential palace. Becki was thrilled, and I felt more inspired to sing than ever. If a man with a full beard could make it as a diva, why couldn’t I?

A musical acquaintance of Anna’s had suggested I meet her friend Alfred, a baritone who sang in opera houses across the world, to get his take on Vienna’s music scene.

A couple of days after the salon, I met up with him in one of Vienna’s famous coffeehouses— the kind that provides a glossary with the menu to explain the nuanced distinctions between a mélange (similar to a cappuccino) and an Einspänner (strong, black, topped with whipped cream). Alfred told me there were no fewer than four music festivals taking place as we spoke, and this was not an unusual number. He said it was only when he was away from home—“in Tokyo, maybe, or Denver”—that he realized how rich his home city is. “I’m so used to it, I don’t see it, but there’s art and music on every corner. It’s all around you.”

And while he is more inclined to the worlds of Mozart and Puccini, even Alfred was proud of Conchita Wurst. “She makes her own dresses, you know,” he told me, adding that she is part of a history of Viennese cabaret artists dating to the 1800s. “Everyone comes to Vienna and sees our Klimt, our Ferris wheel [the Wiener Riesenrad], our New Year’s concert. But the old-style cabaret has a really black humor, very satirical. This is the other side of the Viennese people.”

He suggested Becki and I hear some Wienerlieder, traditional Viennese songs from the 19th and early 20th centuries that blend the comic with the melancholic. There was, inevitably, a festival of them. Buzzing from our kleiner Brauner—“little brown” cups of espresso that the Viennese knock back like water—we booked tickets to the fest.

High culture may be Vienna’s most visible and marketable feature, but it is by no means the whole story.

“I feel 30 percent underdressed for this,” Becki murmured later that day as we stood beneath the ornate molded pillars of the city’s Konzerthaus, mingling with patrons doused in pearls and draped with diamonds. Vienna’s residents, we had noted, always appeared stylishly attired, even if they were just popping out to buy milk. The paradox was that these paragons of style and poise thought nothing of jumping a line, or shoulder-barging you on their way to the bar. As for yielding on the sidewalk—never play chicken with a Viennese.

I was nervous. Our German was of the “Bier, bitte?” variety, and certainly wouldn’t stretch to an appreciation of the biting humor we were supposed to encounter in the lyrics of Wienerlieder. But while we may not have gotten the punch lines, we found ourselves chuckling along with the audience anyway. They were theatrical numbers, similar to vaudeville, sung to the accompaniment of a piano. (Head to the taverns in the city’s outlying vineyards, and you can hear them with the more traditional backing of the zither and the hurdy-gurdy.) There was plenty of physical, knockabout comedy, and when the tenor stood to sing about a woman named Clara, we needed no one to translate the pain of unrequited love. All the singers’ expressions transcended not just the vocabulary but the style, too, and I found myself hankering for a rich, full vibrato like theirs.

Maybe warbling wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

My ambitions whetted, my sore throat forgotten, the next day I took the subway from the city center to the Meidling district for my singing lesson with Anna. It involved rather less singing than I expected, for the first half hour, at least. There were exercises that involved pulling silly faces and squatting on the floor and puffing like an asthmatic dragon. When we did start to make sounds, she had me groan, sigh, and make funny clicking noises in the back of my throat.

So much for do-re-mi.

On the other hand, blowing raspberries at your teacher is a lot of fun, and by the time Anna had led me through the vocal warm-up, I had lost a good number of my inhibitions. So when she told me to open my jaw “like a fish” and sing “through the roof of your mouth,” I did as I was told. The notes that had been trapped buzzing around my vocal chords were suddenly bouncing around my head and leaping out of my mouth. I stopped, shocked and puzzled. She laughed, and nodded encouragingly. “That is your singing voice,” she said. “And it’s a very good one.”

As I began to sing in this unfamiliar voice—scales at first, then snatches of melody—I considered the strangeness of the sensation. It was as if Anna had just handed me an instrument I had never played before, a trombone, an English horn. It was harder to control the notes, but their tone was brighter, fuller—heck, lovelier—than anything I had heard myself sing before.

We agreed to meet again in a couple of days’ time, and I promised to practice beforehand. For the next 48 hours, Becki had to put up with me humming alongside her as we wandered the streets. I also howled as I showered, practicing my vocal exercises, as she tried to read. Our hotel room had a window seat that offered a wonderfully resonant acoustic space for me to experiment with my new voice, and I ensconced myself there, working the first note from Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” over and over to recapture the sound I’d made in Anna’s apartment: “Smah . . . smahhh . . . smahhhl. . . .”

“It’s impressive,” said Becki.

“Don’t you mean annoying?”

“Well, it manages to be both.”

Photo at left: a man walking a dog on the streets of Vienna. Photo at right: The interior of a concert hall.

“High culture may be Vienna’s most visible and marketable feature, but it is by no means the whole story.”

Photographs by François Coquerel

Another piece of homework Anna gave me was to visit Porgy & Bess, the most important jazz club in the city. It was, she explained, the subterranean heart of alternative music in Vienna, and a Finnish funk collective was due to play there the day after my lesson. Unfortunately, Becki and I had managed to double book ourselves, so I ended up abandoning my friend at a chamber music concert and racing out at the intermission to make it to the club.

As I dashed through the entrance hall, which still showed signs of its former existence as a 1920s theater, I spotted posters showing a procession of musicians who had traveled from all over the world to play there: Neneh Cherry, Nigel Kennedy, Toumani Diabaté, Glen Hansard. It’s rare to attempt such an instant gearshift from delicate, filigreed baroque music to raw funk. With this in mind, it’s hard for me to tell whether the improbable things I witnessed at the club that night actually occurred, or were total hallucinations. I probably didn’t see a Finnish man in double denim yelling, “How do you dig that groove?” I’m certainly convinced that the band’s trumpeter and trombonist cannot really have choreographed their riffs with cross-country skiing moves. I’ll allow that I may have watched someone shredding so hard that he had to blow on his hands afterward.

But surely it can’t have been the guy playing the euphonium?

The images seemed particularly unreal as I climbed the stairs back up to the street and emerged into the old city. What place did porkpie hats and pony-tailed drummers have in Vienna? Who of those walking by would believe me if I told them that, a few feet below, a man was playing jazz flute without a hint of irony?

My second session with Anna proved far more difficult than the first. It was tough enough exercising control over my vocal chords, but now she expected me to put meaning into what I was singing, too. Anna could sing a phrase, and it would be obvious, even with my eyes closed, what she was communicating. But what with trying to stay in tune, and shape my vowels, and remember how to breathe, I didn’t have much brain function left to convey emotion.

“Try to act as if you don’t care,” said Anna. I opened my mouth and instantly forgot all the words to the song I was singing. I’m not sure that’s exactly what she had in mind. I felt overwhelmed by the sheer mechanics. How did singers conquer all this technique, yet still sound so free, relaxed, spontaneous?

I may have started to find my voice, but I had discovered, at the same time, that it was a far more complex and mysterious instrument than I had ever imagined.

I’ll allow that I may have watched someone shredding so hard that he had to blow on his hands afterward. But surely it can’t have been the guy playing the euphonium?

There was one more musical appointment left in the trip. It was our last night in Vienna, so Becki and I were heading to the State Opera. We had pooled enough formalwear to prevent us, we hoped, from being embarrassed by the Viennese wardrobe police, and we had purchased unavoidably pricey tickets to see Verdi’s La Traviata.

La Traviata is one of those operas in which the entire plot hangs on a point of honor and an incurable case of consumption. Usually, these are the ones I struggle with most, since I can never understand why the hero and heroine make such terrible self-sacrificing decisions, nor how the disease-ridden invalid is managing to propel herself around the stage singing at the top of her lungs.

If that weren’t bad enough, this particular opera was also Mr. Sophisticated Ex-Boyfriend’s favorite, which meant I knew it well, and liked it less. But you don’t leave Italy without tasting the pasta, and you can’t come to Vienna to learn to sing without sitting through an opera. Our seats turned out to be in a box so close to the stage we were almost on top of it; the other occupants were a couple of severe-looking Viennese women and a pair of delighted Americans, who had called the ticket office every day in the hope of attending the sellout performance.

“We absolutely love La Traviata,” said the wife. I made a mental note not to laugh at any of the tragic scenes. A small dot-matrix screen was positioned discreetly next to each seat to provide translation of the Italian libretto. “La città di feste è piena, volge il tempo dei piacer, nel riposo ancor la lena si ritempri per goder,” sang the chorus. “The city is full of parties, it’s time to enjoy, let us restore our strength for new pleasures.”

I thought of Alfred and his love for cabaret, of Conchita Wurst and the Viennese clubs where she began her career. I remembered the band strutting their funky stuff at Porgy & Bess, and the race to get there from the Konzerthaus. I pondered the many gigs and venues Anna had urged us to try out. And then the singing took over, and I stopped thinking at all.

Perhaps my singing lessons made me more appreciative of the vocal arts on display. I could, of course, blame the surprisingly cheap champagne that flowed freely at intermission. (Maybe the ticket prices subsidize the bar.)
But I prefer to think that Vienna was the culprit—a city of formality that was bursting underneath with emotion and free expression.

By the end of the third act, I had lost myself completely in the music, and Mr. Sophisticated Ex-Boyfriend had been well and truly exorcised. The heroine unleashed one last powerful, full-throated melody before her inevitable consumptive demise. Becki leaned forward to root in her bag, avoiding the disapproving gaze of the Viennese ladies as she did so. With a silent, triumphant grin, she passed me a tissue.

Emma John is a journalist at the Observer newspaper in the United Kingdom, and a contributing writer to AFAR. She lives in London and regularly writes on travel for the Guardian.