Monday, October 28, 2013

Weekly Interlude 21: Filling Time, Part 2

The Perchtoldsdorf Church
The Secession Museum
The clocks in Vienna changed Saturday night--a happy surprise yesterday (and today), when I realized I had an extra hour. I seem to have a whole list of things to do, suddenly, including finding some kind of Halloween costume for my classes this week, finding guitar chords and/or a lead sheet to "Sleigh Bells" (which I then must learn, memorize, and perform for the Musical Munchkins Holiday Party), and practicing. I've been writing a lot more lately, which is at once exciting and time-sucking; I'd like nothing more than to sit and write for hours on end--preferably in a cafe--but unfortunately, the Real World isn't entirely conducive to such luxuries.

Therefore, I'm becoming ever more creative at finding ways to fit small moments of peace or enjoyment into my life. For example, I write on the S-Bahn on my way to and from Perchtoldsdorf; I read a book while in line for standing room tickets. My friend who teaches English near Graz has also come up for several weekends; after my two-and-a-half long, lonely months in the summer, having two great friends stay in my apartment is unbelievable. There's certainly no shortage of laughter!

Last night, Eliza and I bought standing room tickets for the first time at Theater an der Wien, where Diana Damrau sang the lead role in Iain Bell's new opera, A Harlot's Progress. The young British composer (who is the youngest composer ever commissioned by Theater an der Wien) based his storyline on Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, which is based on a series of six paintings and engravings (1731-32) by English artist William Hogarth. Damrau is my Elina Garanca of sopranos, which means, for those who don't know how much I love Garanca, that Damrau is one of the fittest, most agile singers and compelling actresses I've ever seen. While the subject matter of the opera was most definitely not for everyone (I'm glad I knew in advance that it was fairly explicit), its execution was honest and, in its own right, beautiful. In my opinion, Damrau's tragic mad scene surpassed the famous one in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Her sink into insanity was carefully and subtly executed, a natural progression and decent into the inevitable.

Café Drechsler
Since standing room at the Theater an der Wien is far less competitive than at the Staatsoper, Eliza and I actually arrived to the theater way too early; the doors weren't even open yet! So we walked down the street and plunked down at Café Drechsler for an hour. Over coffee, we discussed everything from Eliza's voice teacher's experience singing at the Staatsoper to our experiences with the singing technique of appoggio. (Talk about Susan's artistic adventures!) Drechsler, a sparsely decorated though warm cafe, is the only one in Vienna open 24 hours...I sense some long, writing-filled days in my future.
A temporary wall at Theater an der Wien

Meanwhile, I spent yesterday afternoon with Lillian at a playground right behind the center of Perchtoldsdorf. It was a beautiful fall day and unseasonably warm. The town looks so Austrian, though I'm not sure any of my pictures did it justice. Today, I take her to dance class, which she loves, and then I'll use the forty minutes to run out and buy a tiara or cat ears or something for my Musical Munchkins Halloween costume.

Bernstein Star, near Theater a. d. Wien
Side Note: Eliza and I are planning to go to a Halloween party this Thursday, and like true opera dorks, Eliza's dressing as Salome (from R. Strauss's opera Salome), and I'm dressing, with my limited costume choices and inclination to dress up at all, as a Pants Role. In opera, a pants role is when a female singer, typically a mezzo-soprano, sings the role of a young man. Basically, I'll be wearing pants, boots, a blouse, and an old-fashioned looking jacket. Go me. Can you tell how enthusiastic I am about this holiday?
But Christmas, my favorite holiday, is coming soon, starting with the Christmas Markets which open in Vienna at the end of November. In less than two months, I'll be home for the holidays--let's see how much I can cram in between now and then. Can I stretch out this extra hour from Daylight Savings' Time for the next couple of days at least? I can but try.
Church and bell tower in Perchtoldsdorf center

Monday, October 21, 2013

Weekly Interlude 20: Staatsoper Shenanigans

Augarten Park
It's officially Fall in Vienna, complete with fiery orange leaves and cool, crisp air. It reminds me of Fall in New England, a nice dose of home. Last weekend, I went to the Augarten, a large park two U-Bahn stops away from my apartment. Imagine: late afternoon, clear blue skies and the golden slant of sun, families laughing, couples jogging, kids playing kickball, a white, fluffy dog running on the grass, tree-lined pathways, wooden benches, two men playing accordions a hundred feet away. I sat under a square-cut tree for a few hours, reading and occasionally glancing up to breathe in the life all around me.

So much green in the middle of Wien!
This week has been full of music. I had three voice lessons -- hooray! -- and I can feel the progress I'm making. A lot of what I'm working on involves changing the way I think about the most basic musical concepts -- pitch, for example. As a rather visual learner, I tend to treat pitches as discrete and distinct units, specific places of high, middle, and low as represented on the grand staff. While it's true that pitch needs to be specific (in order to sing in tune), treating pitches as "high" and "low" can give you a lot of trouble when you sing. For me, thinking about singing "high" results in my larynx (voice box) popping up and tensing (when it should, in fact, be low and calm). Now I'm working on mentally conceptualizing a different form of musical notation: basically, I'm shifting from treating pitch as a staircase (rigid) to pitch as a rubber band (flexible). Confused? Well, who ever said singing was easy? It takes a LOT of mental energy; learning to sing is often more about mental discipline than anything else. Coordination, observation, instruction, flexibility.
Tree-lined paths at Augarten

But the result of all this is that I sustained a "high" note on Saturday -- I wouldn't have been able to do it even a few weeks ago! It was so exciting; I went in with my plan, and then I executed it. I got out of my own way, and BAM. High note. Singing is so fun :)

I'm a day or two late in writing this blog entry, but in my defense, I spent well over half of yesterday at the Staatsoper, or State Opera House. Renée Fleming was singing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (a comic opera by Richard Strauss), which is one of my favorite operas. Now, in Vienna, true opera lovers don't waste hundreds of euros on prime seats; they go for standing room, which only costs 3-4 euros. There are three sections: Parterrestehplatz (standing room on the floor; literally the best "seats" in the house), Balkonstehplatz (skip it; you can't see anything), and Galleriestehplatz (the sound is best way up here). This year, I've been going for the Gallerie because you don't have to line up so early, but Eliza and I decided to spring for Parterre yesterday.

The entrance to Augarten Park
For the six o'clock opera, we lined up at 2:10 p.m. Talk about hard core! And we weren't anywhere close to being the first ones in line! Three hours before the start of every opera, the man who operates the standing room line lets everybody wait inside. Yesterday, with ten minutes to spare before the door was due to open, I ran to a nearby bakery to get sandwiches for dinner later; when I returned, the man had let everybody inside early. And because I had left the line, he wouldn't allow me to take my same place, as per standing room line rules, so I was sent to the back. I'm usually so careful about timing everything because it's so frustrating to get into line four hours in advance and then lose your spot. (If he hadn't let the line in early...) Anyway, it turned out alright because Eliza sneakily saved me a spot -- which you're not technically allowed to do, but I'm a tiny person, so it worked.

Through the trees at Augarten
Standing room line, so cut-throat every time, was only the beginning of a bizarre (though lovely) evening. The man standing next to Eliza switched her subtitles prompter from English into German during the first intermission. When the rather rotund baritone playing Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau made his grand entrance in Act II -- adorned in a mustard-colored velvet dress coat and complementary red fez -- somebody wolf-whistled. Between Acts II and III, a man came on stage to announce that the woman playing the role of Sophie had to see a doctor and wouldn't be able to finish the production. Enter the cover (understudy, who was wonderful). I've never had such a strange standing-room experience.

Der Rosenkavalier runs just shy of four-and-a-half hours. It's an investment. In 2012, I saw this production with Nina Stemme and Elina Garanca, who were so unbelievably brilliant. (I've never seen a performer like Garanca before; she's unparalleled.) While the singers/actors were incredible in that production, I think I preferred last night's performance overall. I found myself laughing out loud, literally, at many points, whereas the 2012 version seemed, somehow, more tender than comic. I think one of the reasons I love this opera so much is that it strikes a balance between comedy and more solemn issues (aging, letting go, etc.). Renée Fleming, of course, was lovely. She's one of the most elegant people I've ever seen on stage. I'd love to see Garanca and Fleming in the same production, but if that ever happens, I'll have to stake out the standing room line 24 hours before the show starts!

Welcome, Fall!
The final trio (and emotional climax) in Der Rosenkavalier (starting at 4:00 in this link) makes the entire four-and-a-half hours worth it. To summarize: Octavian, a 17-year-old boy (played by a mezzo-soprano), hesitates between the Marschallin, with whom he had an affair (that ended in Act I), and Sophie, the young woman he loves and met after the Marschallin. The Marschallin, still in love with the young Octavian, gracefully encourages the boy to follow his heart and choose Sophie. The first time I heard it, it didn't even occur to me to read the subtitles; no translation necessary because the music speaks for itself. This trio marked one of my first truly transcendent musical experiences, and this time was no different. The music fills me from the inside out. It's like watching sunshine stream in through a stained glass window, the light branching off into hundreds of different colors and patterns. It crescendos, unfolding layer upon layer of magic. Whenever I hear it, I feel suspended, as though my breathing is controlled by the music itself. Last night, the orchestra played incomparably, rising up to meet the singers and surpassing them when it all became too much for three single voices to carry. Music like this comes from within, making you aware of all the invisible parts of you -- all the thoughts and feelings you didn't know you could have.

And on that note (pun semi-intended), it's time to begin the week.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Weekly Interlude 19: Sometimes It's Sunny in Vienna

Lillian has returned!
Glitter is the bane of mothers, fathers, babysitters, and teachers all over the world. It sticks to everything, embeds in carpets and cracks, taunts you with a flash out the corner of your eye, only to disappear. It travels faster than the common cold, beginning on a craft table and metastasizing to the kitchen counter, the sofa, your hair. The only medicine I've discovered so far (and it's not even really a solution) is a huge, unprompted hug from Lillian, who is so cute and so happy to see me again that I have no choice but to let go of my Glitter Grief.

One of my many glitter tattoos
Lillian and her family came back from the States this week, so I'm back to the grind. But the two afternoon/evenings I've already spent with her couldn't have been more fun. She was so happy the whole time, probably because of her glitter tattoo kit. She also has a new book/CD combo by Sandra Boynton called Frog Trouble, and it's entirely country music! Fun fact about me: I love country music. So Lillian might be more obsessed with painting butterflies on my arm, but I'm busy singing along with Brad Paisley, Alison Krauss, and Darius Rucker. No big deal. Add in a couple spur-of-the-moment wrestle-hugs from Lillian, and we have a great evening.
Some foliage at the Belvedere

Tomorrow, my intensive voice lessons with Jennifer officially begin, and needless to say I'm massively excited. I have so many questions to ask her, so many observations I want to share from my four weeks without her. Plus, there's yet more music to learn. I'm still currently suffering from I-Want-to-Sing-Everything-Perfectly-Right-Now Syndrome, which is a hindrance more than a help, so hopefully she can help me sort out my thoughts and find a good path. I may have gone a little wild at the library a few weeks ago and checked out a bazillion scores and anthologies, so at least I have a lot to choose from!

The Upper Belvedere
Lillian's return to Vienna also marked the return of some of my winter clothes. Since I originally thought I'd be here until August, I only packed summer clothing; this quickly became a problem in September. My mom mailed some clothes to Jennifer in the States, who then brought them back on Wednesday, and may I just say, there is nothing like wearing your own clothes -- and having a choice about what to wear. I'd borrowed some jeans and sweaters from Jennifer in the meantime, but I was getting REALLY sick of wearing the same four shirts since June. Now I have choices! Long-sleeved, short-sleeved; the world is my oyster.

In the Museums Quartier
Now that I have long-sleeved shirts, however, the weather's warmed up a bit. Eliza and I sat in the Museums Quartier courtyard yesterday and read for a while. So many families and dog-walkers strolled by; I was people-watching in between chapters. Earlier in the week, she and I went to the Belvedere (two Baroque palaces built as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy), where we split a chocolate croissant and an apricot croissant and then wandered around the gardens. Two perfect and sunny days spent in lovely company, laughing and relaxing. Doesn't get much better than that.
Schwarzenbergplatz, in the 1st district

These two days were in sharp contrast to my job at Musical Munchkins, which is utterly exhausting. My three classes on Fridays are immensely challenging and drain me completely. After one of the classes in particular, I just want to curl up and sleep. But no. I must keep the energy high. Must. Push. Through.
A very cool plant growing across a wall

At least I'm learning new songs and stories to teach Lillian (who always appreciates them). Last night, when she was having a little trouble falling asleep due to the jet lag, I told her the stories of The Three Little Kittens, The Three Little Bears, and The Little Engine That Could. All off the top of my head! She really enjoyed them, too, so I think I should give myself more credit than I'm inclined to; just because I can't get a vibe (positive or negative) from most of the parents doesn't automatically mean that I'm a bad teacher. Not that I'm the greatest teacher ever, either. I mean, let's face it: sometimes I feel like I'm barely keeping afloat week-to-week. But that is okay. It's to be expected. I keep telling myself to chill out. My brain knows it, but my shoulders haven't quite caught on yet.
The Upper Belvedere

I have the entire day off today. Eliza's birthday is tomorrow, but I'm working all day, so we're celebrating today! I sense cake in my near future. And I may or may not have convinced her to watch Newsies with me... (But really, who can resist newsboys who sing and dance and speak with amusing New York accents?) All in all, an excellent weekend.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Weekly Interlude 18: Seeing Friends

Some people use yoga to find balance; others meditate. Turns out all I need are my friends.

This weekend, two of my friends from my study abroad semester came to Vienna (one came up from Graz, Austria, and the other down from Liberec, Czech Republic; they both teach English). It was at once both strange and completely normal to cruise around the city with them, as if it were still 2012 and we were still students. Although my roommates from that semester all live in different countries and states now, we immediately pick up where we leave off whenever we see each other.
Looking across the Danube

The week began unsuspectingly, with a sudden drop in temperature and a consistent, whipping wind. I decided to take another walk to the Danube, this time with my camera. In the picture shown here, you can see the EU buildings and the "squiggly skyscraper" (as I like to call it) on the other side of the Danube. Sitting by the water was worth it, but it was just a bit too frigid to be completely enjoyable. I did, however, help an older Canadian couple find their way back to their Viking Tor river cruise.

Colorful vegetables at the Naschmarkt
Frozen but happy
Since it's been so cold, I spent much of my time indoors this week. That all changed on Friday, when my friends arrived. There's nothing like friends to shake me out of my doldrums! We spent the afternoon before I had to work touring the Naschmarkt, Vienna's most popular market that extends from the 1st district all the way to the 6th, right by where we lived when we studied abroad. The Naschmarkt is always crowded, filled with tourists and locals alike. You can find anything from produce to dried fruit, fish to baked goods. There are even some restaurants. The vendors aggressively but cheerfully offer samples of stuffed olives and falafel, calling out "Bitte schön!" and "Schöne Damen!" -- often switching to "Beautiful ladies!" to get our attention (I quickly learned phrases like "I'm just looking" and "May I try this?"). I was so inspired by my Naschmarkt tours this weekend (we went twice) that I'm going today to buy some produce. It all looked so colorful and fresh; there's absolutely no reason to settle for half-wilted, sub-par produce at the grocery store. In the picture to the right, you'll see me holding a pastry called a Mohnzelten. It's basically a bready pastry dough densely filled with poppy seeds. Completely delicious and not too sweet, but make sure you have a mirror handy to check for poppy seeds in your teeth afterwards!
The empty Rathausplatz

Our walk through the Naschmarkt led us to the 1st district and over to the Rathaus. If you remember, the Rathausplatz housed the equestrian show and the film festival; in the winter, it will feature an massive ice skating rink. This weekend, though, the area was completely cleared out, and for the first time ever (I think), I saw an empty Rathausplatz. It doesn't seem big enough to hold all those festivals -- or the dressage arena!

A beautiful street in the 17th district
While one of my friends took the LSAT next door to the Rathaus, my other friend and I hopped a random Straßenbahn and rode it all the way to the end of the line. That brought us to the 17th district, where we walked around for a bit. The 17th district lies near the Vienna Woods. These outskirts feel much more residential and quaint, like a glimpse of the "real Vienna" set away from everything touristy or commercial in the center or in the larger districts. The 17th and 19th districts give the illusion that you're in an older Vienna; streets are narrow and cobblestoned, buildings are more Baroque. The architecture is much more ornate than the 19th-century, dark beige cinder block buildings you sometimes see. Even wandering a random district is more fun with friends: the exchange of ideas, the laughter. Everything seems more welcoming and exciting when I have someone to share it with.
My delicious Café Brulôt

Inside Café Pierre
After freezing outside for hours, we decided to warm up in a cafe. We finally found a table at the third place we tried: Café Pierre, a French-Austrian cafe. I ordered a Café Brulôt -- espresso with cinnamon, vanilla aromas, foam, and a fancy chocolate drizzle. Our drinks came in cups without handles but with spoons, so it was like eating soup! Needless to say, going to a cafe is the best way to warm up.

Roommates at Oktoberfest!
A stall at Oktoberfest
On Saturday night, we went to Vienna's own Oktoberfest. Munich is, of course, home to the real Oktoberfest, but I figured we should check out the Viennese version. It took place in the Prater, which is a massive amusement park/park area in the 2nd district only one U-Bahn stop from my apartment. The Riesenrad, or giant ferris wheel, loomed over the whole event. Most of the fun took place inside giant beer halls, where drunk people clad in Lederhosen (pronounced LAY-der-hoh-zen, not LEE-der-hoh-zen) and Dirndls lived up to the Austrian stereotype, swaying back and forth while singing and swinging beer steins. We didn't go inside any of the halls, as none of us were dressed appropriately or in the mood for pounding music and drunk singing, but we did each order a giant pretzel and beer. We stood outside and ate/drank at a wooden counter with the tamer crowd, soaking in the atmosphere.
Iced gingerbread hearts

Clocks w/o minute hands
Sadly, my friends had to leave early Sunday afternoon. In order to stay positive and keep the weekend momentum going, Eliza and I went to a clock museum. Yes, that's right. There's a whole museum dedicated to clocks. On the first Sunday of every month, every branch of the Wien Museum offers free admission, so we met up with a friend and classmate of Eliza's and explored the three-story museum. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Vienna was, apparently, a hub of clock making. We saw the earliest clocks (with only the hour hand and no minute hand), cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest in southwest Germany, painting clocks (where real clocks were included in cityscapes, etc.), grandfather clocks, clocks made entirely of wood, giant music boxes, pocketwatches, etc. 
Grandfather clocks

Fun Fact: In the mid-18th century, Austrians used roasting jacks, or "mechanically turned spits used to cook meat over an open fire." These didn't actually measure time, but their mechanics were "important in the development of clockworks," according to the museum. To this day, a clock that keeps time poorly is sometimes called a Brater, or meat roaster, in Vienna.
You can see the cogs!

Between the Naschmarkt, the city wandering, and Oktoberfest, this weekend was packed and exciting. But really, it was seeing my friends that made this weekend the best I've had in a long time. Whenever I see friends, I just feel more balanced, rejuvenated; I have more energy, and mundane, day-to-day activities seem more exciting. I don't feel so far away from home. And the best news? They're coming back in a couple of weeks! Hooray for living in central Europe, where nothing (except the US) is too far away :)