Raise the curtain! Cue the lights! For these Vienna-based performers, the show must go on. A classical violinist, an opera soprano, a musical theater starlet, and a singer-songwriter tell us what it takes to make a living on the stage.
Musical theater actress
When I explain that I do musical theater – singing, dancing, acting – people here are like, ‘Wow! You can do that as a job?’
In the city of classical music, musical theater is often considered second to opera. “When I tell some people that I’m a performer, they often ask, what instrument do you play?” says 24-year-old Angelika Ratej. She is determined to become a success in this more popular art form, even if some people, including her family members, might not completely get it yet.
When Ratej was turned down at the ballet school in Vienna at age 14 because she didn’t have the right body type, it only fueled her desire to become a dancer. She took up other forms of dance, practicing four to five hours a day for the next three years, before beating 190 other candidates to land one of the 10 coveted places at the Performing Center Austria – whose graduates dominate stages across the German-speaking world.
At that point, her family gave in: “OK, I guess you’re really going to do this,” her mother, who teaches recorder at the Graz Conservatory, told her, and warned that pursuing music as a career was a hard road to take.
But Ratej is optimistic and determined, and was not deterred by their doubts. “I’m my number-one supporter.” She learned quickly to become resilient. “You get rejected a lot at auditions, but you have to learn to not take it personally. Maybe for one role they want a short blond girl, or for another a tall exotic one, but you have to keep in mind that it’s not about who you really are.”
Her dream role? Maria – in West Side Story, not The Sound of Music. In her upcoming gig, the Vienna version of The Hot Box Girls – a burlesque show that originated in New York – she will be performing a routine that mashes up The Lonely Goatherd (from the famed Salzburg musical that everyone but the Austrians loves) with Gwen Stefani’s Wind It Up.
Friends loved the catchy tune: “That’s great,” they gushed. “What is it?” Perhaps the next generation of Austrians is now finally ready to embrace this musical as their own.
I’ bin nur a Zuagraster, I’ kam nach Wien in am Zug.
From Gander’s song “Die Wiener”
British singer-songwriter Steve Gander, 59, who has lived in Vienna since the 1980s, is probably the closest thing to an expat rock star that you’ll find in the Habsburg capital. Except that he doesn’t consider himself an expat. Sitting in his neighborhood café on Columbusplatz, he reckoned that he could call himself a fully integrated Austrian.
“I measure up to the profile of the 10th district: I’m an immigrant, I’m foreign, I speak German,” he quipped in his deep, gravelly voice that perfectly suits his quirky, irreverent songs. “I don’t intentionally mix in expat circles and don’t go looking for other Brits. In fact, I’m more of a migrant than an expat.”
In addition to music, he has also had some success as a stand-up comic here, with a long-running show that was a hit with Austrian audiences called English as a Funny Language, based on his experiences as an ESL teacher.
Still, humor can be tricky and there was an evening when a few people stormed out of the theater during the performance of a song called Blonde Aryan Girls. “I knew someone had been offended,” Gander recalled, “but I didn’t know if it was because they were right wing or Jews!”
The controversial song created other occasions for pushing the boundaries of political “in–correctness,” when Gander played “the most famous Austrian of all time, Hitler” in the music video produced for the single. When renting the costume, Gander had to assure the rental manager that he didn’t know Hubsi Kramar (a prominent figure in Viennese theater who showed up at the Opera Ball in a Hitler outfit) and that the uniform would only be used “for artistic purposes.” Gander satisfied the manager, but couldn’t resist a parting shot as he went out the door: “If you hear there was a putsch over the weekend, you’ll know who it was.”
Vienna is the city of music. Where else do you get in a taxi and the driver is playing Beethoven?
Sitting with Chen Reiss, the elegant lounge at the Hotel Bristol on the Ringstraße feels more like a village café than an international hot spot, as she seemed to know every third person who passed the table. To be fair, we were right next door to her “office,” the Vienna State Opera, where she has a contract as singer-in-residence. “I love the fact that I see people I know on the street here every day, which hardly ever happens in a bigger city like New York or London. You always feel at home.”
Although the Israeli-born soprano has lived all over the world, she considers Vienna her third home (Tel Aviv and London being the other two). “Vienna is the only city where I’ve actually chosen to spend several months of the year. I completely fell in love with the city.” She had other choices: Her family wanted her in Israel; her British husband wanted her in London. “But I said, there’s no way I’m giving up Vienna.”
As an opera singer, perhaps it’s no surprise that Vienna holds a special place in Reiss’s heart. Here, the appreciation for her profession is on another level: “People really value opera here. This is the only place where I’ve been recognized while standing in line at the post office. You go to the bank and you say you work at the Staatsoper and they go, ‘OK, wow – respect.’”
As a mother of two, Reiss would like her children to grow up with the musical tradition in Vienna. “It’s amazing to go into the Musikverein or Theater an der Wien and realize Beethoven’s Ninth premiered here or Mahler conducted here. You walk on the streets and see, this was the house of Mozart or Schubert. As a musician, you feel in awe of the place; it feels holy.”
“In other cities, you have to seek out classical music. Here you’re literally surrounded by it, the very walls speak to you.” She paused, and added, smiling. “Or sing to you, I should say.”
It’s important to show young people that classical music can still be cool and -interesting for them.
Many assume that classical musicians live a rarefied existence – particularly if they are world-renowned and have leading craftsmen make instruments especially for them. Although Yury Revich, 24, IMCA’s Young Artist of the Year 2015, does have an air of refinement, arriving to his interview smartly dressed, in sunglasses with his violin case in tow, he is generous in his compliments and quick to offer help to others.
Perhaps it is his youth that allows him to adjust so quickly, and helps explain why he’s not only a consummate performer, but also an organizer of many side projects, including Friday Nights with Yury Revich. This weekly series in Vienna merges classical musicians with other artists and performers, such as dancers, painters, actors, and even fashion designers.
“In Vienna there’s the quite traditional scene and the very underground scene and there’s nothing in the middle, so we try to bring together these two different worlds,” the Russian-born violinist explained.
Revich is keenly aware of his audience’s demographics at traditional venues like the Musikverein. “There are three categories of concertgoers: those who simply don’t know anything about classical music; those who do understand and have a clear opinion about what they are hearing; and those who have come because they’ve been told to, who just follow the crowd, whether they like it or not. This makes it really difficult to assess the actual quality of the performance.”
Revich wants to encourage audiences to form and express their own views. “There are so many good artists who are not famous, that you might then go to see and find really great, as opposed to only going for the so-called ‘maestros’ because you’ve been blinded by the posters and the names. It’s important to actually try to understand the quality yourself and have your own opinion.”