S3, E5: Learning to Sing in Vienna, the City of Music

In this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, a bluegrass fiddler travels to Vienna to learn how to sing—and how to embrace the city’s most famous art: opera.

In this week’s episode of Travel Tales by AFAR, Emma John, a reluctant singer, books a trip to Vienna, a place known for its singing talent—and the place where her musical odyssey begins.


Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, this is Travel Tales by AFAR. In every episode, we hear from a traveler about a trip that really meant something to them. And in this season, we’re actually sending people—writers, comedians, playwrights—out into the world to explore life’s big questions. In this episode, we’re traveling to Vienna with AFAR contributing writer Emma John.

Emma has music in her blood. She grew up in London playing classical violin, and about a decade ago, she traveled to the American South to learn to play bluegrass, a journey she chronicled in a story for AFAR, and in her book Wayfaring Stranger. But in all those years, she avoided singing, for reasons you’ll soon hear about. And then one day, she decided to do something about it. So she booked a trip to Vienna, a city renowned for its singing talent—and the place where her musical odyssey began.

Emma John: The busker singing outside the electronics store hits an impossibly high note. “That’s gotta be a high C,” I say. “It’s at least a C,” replies Becki, my bandmate and travel companion. The two of us try it ourselves. Our shrieks sound nothing like the clear, ringing vibrato we had just heard from the busker. I cough slightly and touch the scarf that I’ve coiled around my neck like a diva. “Sore throat,” I say. “Must try to protect my voice.”

In Vienna, I’m learning, even the street performers sound like opera stars. The city is the birthplace of Schubert, the workplace of Mozart, and the home of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. If you want to learn to sing, there’s no better place to learn from the best.

And I want to learn to sing, though 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, he had a well-paid job in an investment bank, and he 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.

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. Becki, who plays mandolin, disagrees. 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.

On our first day, we are 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 stumble across a crowd of a hundred or so people. They’re sitting on the sidewalk to watch the State Opera’s performance of Faust streaming on a giant screen. An old man with a walking stick sits comfortably next to a pair of young tourists. A set of smartly dressed ladies shares a bench with a homeless man. All are silently fixated on the chorus, its performance literally larger than life.

When I look down at the sidewalk, I see the names of the famous composers who have lived and worked in the city, etched out in a walk of fame: Antonio Vivaldi, Anton Bruckner, Franz Schubert, Jean Sibelius. We move quickly over them; we have another musical appointment to keep this evening, and it doesn’t involve Tosca or Carmen or Don Giovanni.

See, in my hunt for a singing teacher, I had one condition: I didn’t want to warble like a Wagnerian handmaiden. I’m still impressed by the sheer vocal power opera singers have, but I find the melodrama off-putting. I’m always surprised that something that looks and sounds so histrionic can move people to tears.

No, if I’m going to find my voice, I prefer 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 met an orchestral musician fromVienna, and they’d 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 she holds in her own apartment.

So Becki and I are heading to the address we’ve been given. It turns out to be on the second floor of a 20th-century tenement building, the kind of elegant affordable housing that Vienna does so well. As we walk into the living room, I see a grand piano nestled in a corner window, and a mismatched medley of sofas and chairs facing it. We stand a little awkwardly to one side as the place fills up with a couple of dozen people, and we realise that while they’re all dressed smartly in suits and cocktail dresses, they’ve also brought their own slippers to change into at the door. Apparently that’s something people do in these buildings, so as not to annoy the downstairs neighbors when they’re tramping around on the hardwood floors.

An older gentleman admires Becki’s gingham-check shirt. “This is very traditional in Austria,” he tells her. She’s still blushing from the compliment when he adds, “Of course, traditionally we’d use it as a tablecloth.”

Anna is welcoming everyone as they arrive, wearing a caftan-style dress, and her thick blonde hair is woven into the kind of loose braids a Disney prince would cross a thorny wasteland and scale a castle for. When everyone’s seated and ready, she gets up at the front, with her three-piece band, and they start playing a tune I recognise, Sweet Georgia Brown. Her rich voice wraps itself around the familiar words and rhythms like cashmere. Next to her is a grizzled man with a thick gray mane, playing harmonica, and after the song’s done Anna introduces him as her partner, Wolfgang. The next tune they play is Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing,” and as the song evolves, they begin to scat together, each answering the other in a volley of improvisation. The syllables might be meaningless, but every phrase Anna sings is loaded with expression: teasing, nagging, scolding. “It’s like watching them argue over breakfast,” I whisper to Becki.

As the evening progresses, it transforms from a formal gig to a house party. A couple of young men Wolfgang had spotted earlier that day, busking Reinhardt tunes in the Museum Quarter, arrive with their guitars and whip up some gypsy jazz. A few folks dance on the parquet floor, their house shoes sliding underneath them.

Anna agrees to give me a singing lesson later in the week. She also suggests various venues in the city that offer something different from the classical and opera music that it is famous for. There are jazz and swing clubs, and plenty of musicians still play Wienerlieder, traditional Viennese songs from the 19th and early 20th centuries that blend the comic with the melancholic.

A couple of days after the salon, Becki and I discover there’s a festival of Wienerlieder running all month, and immediately buy tickets. “I feel 30 percent underdressed for this,” Becki murmurs later that day. We’re standing beneath the molded pillars of the city’s Konzerthaus, mingling with patrons doused in pearls and draped with diamonds. We have noticed that Vienna’s residents always appear stylishly attired, even if they are just popping out to buy milk.

I’m nervous. Our German is of the “Bier, bitte?” variety, and it’s hard to imagine we’ll grasp the biting humor we are supposed to encounter in the lyrics of Wienerlieder. But we’re soon chuckling along with the rest of the audience anyway. The songs are sung to piano accompaniment and it’s all a bit like vaudeville. Everything’s performed with real theatrical flair and there’s plenty of physical, knockabout comedy. A tenor stands to sing about a woman named Clara, and I can tell without being able to translate it that this is a song about the pain of unrequited love. I find myself belly laughing at punchlines I don’t even understand. The singers’ expressions transcend not just the vocabulary but the style, too, and I find myself hankering for a rich, full vibrato like theirs.

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

My ambitions whetted, the next day I take the subway from the city center to the Meidling district for my singing lesson with Anna. There’s rather less singing than I expect, for the first half hour, at least. She has me do a series of exercises first. First I have to practice breathing from my belly. Then she wants me to scrunch up all the muscles in my face, then make the widest mouth I can, then alternate the two til I feel like I’m in an old-timey silent comedy. There’s also an exercise that involves squatting on the floor and puffing like an asthmatic dragon. When we do start to make sounds, she has 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. By the time Anna has led me through the warm-up, I’ve lost most of my inhibitions. So when she tells me to open my jaw “like a fish” and sing “through the roof of my mouth,” I do as I’m told. The notes that had been trapped around my vocal chords are suddenly bouncing around my head and then leaping out of my mouth. I stop, shocked and puzzled.

She laughs, and nods encouragingly. “That is your singing voice,” she says. “And it’s a very good one.”

As I begin to sing in this unfamiliar voice—scales at first, then snatches of melody—I consider the strangeness of the sensation. It’s as if Anna has just handed me an instrument I ‘ve never played before. It is harder to control the notes, but their tone is brighter, fuller—heck, lovelier—than anything I’ve heard myself sing before.

We agree to meet again in a couple of days’ time, and I promise to practice beforehand. For the next 48 hours, Becki has to put up with me humming alongside her as we wander the streets. I also howl as I shower, and practice my vocal exercises as she tries to read. Our room has a window seat that offers a wonderfully resonant acoustic space for me to experiment with my new voice. I ensconce 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,” says Becki.

“Don’t you mean annoying?” I reply

“Well, it manages to be both.” She says with a smile.

Another piece of homework Anna gave me was to visit Porgy & Bess, the most important jazz club in the city. It is, she had 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 have managed to double book ourselves, so I end up abandoning my friend at a chamber music concert and racing out at the intermission to make it to the club. As I dash through the entrance hall, which still shows signs of its former existence as a 1920s theater, I spot posters showing a procession of musicians who have traveled from all over the world to play here: 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. Which may be why the evening now takes on a hallucinatory quality. I see a Finnish man in double denim yelling, “How do you dig that groove?” I watch as the band’s trumpeter and trombonist choreograph their riffs with cross-country skiing moves. I witness someone shredding so hard that he had to blow on his hands afterward.What’s even weirder is that the instrument he’s shredding on is a euphonium.

The images seem particularly unreal as I climb the stairs back up to the street and emerge into the old city. Would the people walking by believe me if I told them that, a few feet below, a man is playing jazz flute without a hint of irony?

My second session with Anna proves far more difficult than the first. It’s tough enough exercising control over my vocal chords, but now she expects me to put meaning into what I’m singing, too. Anna can sing a phrase, and it’s obvious, even with my eyes closed, what she’s communicating. But as I try to stay in tune, shape my vowels, and remember how to breathe, I don’t have much brain function left to convey emotion. “Try to act as if you don’t care,” says Anna. I open my mouth and instantly forget all the words to the song I’m singing. I’m not sure that’s exactly what she has in mind.

I feel overwhelmed by the sheer mechanics. How do singers conquer all this technique, yet still sound so free, relaxed, spontaneous? Anna sees me looking frustrated. “You don’t have to get everything right at once,” she says, soothingly. I tell her I’d settle for getting just one of the elements right. I may have started to find my voice, but I’ve also discovered that it’s a far more complex and mysterious instrument than I had ever imagined.

There is one more musical appointment left on the trip. It’s our last night in Vienna, so Becki and I are heading to the State Opera. We’ve pooled enough formalwear to prevent us, we hope, from being embarrassed by the Viennese wardrobe police, and we’ve purchased 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 means I know it well, and like 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 turne out to be in a box so close to the stage we are almost on top of it; the other occupants are 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,” says the wife. I make a mental note not to laugh at any of the tragic scenes.

A small dot-matrix screen is 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,” sings the chorus. “The city is full of parties, it’s time to enjoy, let us restore our strength for new pleasures.” I think of Anna’s house concert, the playful way she scatted with Wolfgang, the sight of all those people dancing in slippers on her parquet floors.

I remember the band strutting their funky stuff at Porgy & Bess, and the race to get there from the Konzerthaus. I ponder the many gigs and venues Anna had urged us to try out. And then the singing takes over, and I stop thinking at all.

Perhaps my singing lessons have made me more appreciative of the vocal arts on display. I could, of course, blame the surprisingly cheap champagne that flows freely at intermission. But I prefer to think that Vienna is the culprit—a city of formality that’s bursting underneath with emotion and free expression. By the end of the third act, I have lost myself completely in the music, and Mr. Sophisticated Ex-Boyfriend has been well and truly exorcized.

The heroine unleashes one last powerful, full-throated melody before her inevitable consumptive demise. Becki leans forward to root in her bag, avoiding the disapproving gaze of the Viennese ladies as she does so. With a silent, triumphant grin, she passes me a tissue.

Aislyn: That was Emma John. Emma has kept up with her singing, and has a particular love of singing harmony with her bluegrass buddies. And she’s fully rediscovered her love of opera. Since that trip, she’s visited several opera houses around the world, including La Scala in Milan and the Sydney Opera House. And right before she recorded this episode, she was in the mountains of North Carolina doing some bluegrass picking, and about to take a road trip to Nashville to interview one of her favorite new duos, the War and Treaty.

To hear more from Emma, check out her books, Wayfaring Stranger, and Self Contained, both available as audiobooks on Audible, read by Emma. You can follow her on Twitter @em_john, on Instagram @emmajohnauthor, and on her website emmajohn.com.

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This has been Travel Tales, a production of AFAR Media and Boom Integrated. Our podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene, Adrien Glover, and Robin Lai. Post production was by John Marshall Media staff Jenn Grossman and Clint Rhoades. Music composition by Alan Carrescia. And a special thanks to Irene Wang and Angela Johnston.

I’m Aislyn Greene, your traveling-as-much-as-I-possibly-can host. I’m so happy to be on the road again. As we explore the world this year, remember that travel begins the moment we walk out our front door.

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