Pianist David Aronson: The Man Behind The Singers

As a “Solo Korrepetitor” at the Vienna State Opera, the New Yorker prepares soloists for their future test of nerves

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | December 2013 / January 2014

The coffee had just arrived as pianist and conductor David Aronson came gliding past the broad windows of the Café Sperl on Gumpendorferstrasse in Vienna’s 6th District, his long, swinging strides bringing him seconds later in through the panelling and bevelled glass of the entry way.

(He lives right around the corner on Theobaldgasse and as we all know, he who lives closest arrives last…)

It was 13:00 on a Sunday and we had reserved the furthest back Loge of the café where we could chat in Ruhe before the house pianist was to begin at 14:30.

("Keine Klaviermusik, um Gottes Willen," Aronson had teased. God help us, no piano music!)

He settled into the corner, stretching out his long legs, and eying the two digital recorders on the table.

"You know, singers are using these things, electronic devices… I see nothing on the music stand, and then I realise they are reading from an iPad."

He looked amused and a little mystified.

"The words, the music, it’s all on the iPad! I see pianists actually perform with an iPad on the piano!"

Aronson works at the Wiener Staatsoper, the Vienna State Opera (VSO), engaged primarily as an opera coach, but also as a rehearsal pianist and conductor of the VSO Stage Orchestra.

From time to time, he also plays in the pit, accompanies recitals and conducts the children’s operas that are staged in a special theatre on the roof of the opera house.

He’s a New Yorker, born and trained, with degrees from the Crane School of Music in Potsdam and the Manhattan School of Music in the City, and after more than a decade with opera houses in Zürich and Lucerne, Switzerland, he was brought to Vienna in 1991 by then Staatsoper Director Eberhard Wächter and his successor Ioan Holender.

His actual job title in German is Solo Korrepetitor, which means he works with solo singers, rather than the choir, helping them prepare parts for upcoming Staatsoper productions.

This is no small assignment: The Vienna State Opera performs over 50 different operas in any given season – for 2013-2014 it’s 51, including six premieres, three revivals and two children’s operas.

All the rest are in the repertoire, which means they are scheduled every season and must be kept fresh at performance quality.

"I don’t do this coaching alone, of‚ course," Aronson assures me. "I am one of ten."

Still it’s a daunting assignment, particularly because of the schedule. In addition to the operas, the Staatsoper stages 10 ballets, including two premieres, meaning that the house will be responsible for 61 different programmes in the course of the season.

Thus, even with enough musicians for three orchestras, there is very little time to rehearse, and virtually none in the hall. Soloists and conductors are often guests and may be performing in the Staatsoper for the first time.

Singers usually get two, at most three, days of rehearsal, with piano, and do their blocking with tapes on the floor for the eventual furniture, stairs, and doors.

For a Thursday night opening, of say, Madame Butterfly, Aronson tells me, they will rehearse Act I on Tuesday morning, Acts II and III on Tuesday evening, and try for a run through on Wednesday morning.


Meet the orchestra on opening night

"We could theoretically rehearse Wednesday evening, but very often the singers don’t want to," he said. Voices need rest. But the result is that the soloist sees the set for the first time a half hour before the show, walking it through with the assistant conductor who did the rehearsals.

"So you can imagine. On the night, Thursday, the soloist walks out on the stage and sings her Butterfly without any [full] rehearsal," he says, with wonder still in his voice.

It’s a real test of nerve. "And the conductor walks into the pit, and shakes the hand of the concert master, and sees an orchestra that he has never seen before in his life.

"So it is basically, I know Butterfly, you know Butterfly. Let’s do Butterfly!" He laughs. "There is some excitement in a situation like that!"

Aronson loves his life of music in Vienna, where alongside his busy life in the opera house, he and his wife, coloratura Sylvia Greenberg, concertise widely and have musical soirées in their apartment on Theobaldgasse 7.

It is a house that is "haunted" by music, they like to say; their flat was once the home of conductor Bruno Walter and just downstairs, the family of composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and where Gustav Mahler, Giacomo Puccini and other luminaries were frequent guests. Inspired, the couple recorded a CD – Hausmusik: Korngold, Walter, Mahler, Zemlinsky, Bittner, Goldmark – of songs by the musicians associated with the address.

"The place just felt right," Aronson told The Vienna Review at the time of the release in 2009, "But we didn’t know why until a neighbour told us that the Korngolds had lived there."

In Vienna, music is "part of the tapestry", part of history, but also of the present, of everyday life in the city.

"Here music is ordinary," Aronson said.

"For musicians, it’s their job. When you go to an official department in the city and they say, what is your profession, and you say ‘musician’, they don’t automatically say, as they would in America, ‘but what is your day job?’ It’s the idea of living in a place where making opera can be routine."

And that opera is supported by the tax payers, without a complaint – a miracle to an American.

Working at the Staatsoper, Aronson is what you might call the ultimate outsider as insider, a civil servant in a revered institution that draws artists from all over the world.

Yet, with all that, he remains a foreigner.

"There are times when I feel that I am not one of them," Aronson admitted, "that I’m not from here.  It’s not like Switzerland; I never felt like a foreigner living in Switzerland; everyone was treated the same.

But here, no matter how long you lived here, you’re not a member of that club. And I’m not the only one, I know many people who feel that way. There are certain rules that this country has…," his voice trailed off.


Foreign here, foreign at home

Does he miss New York?

"Well my son’s there!" he exclaimed, explanation enough. "But you know, you can learn a language, you can feel relatively accepted, but it is not the same thing as being in a place where somehow, the air that you breath is familiar to you, and the language spoken is familiar.

But after a time, the pendulum swings, and you become, whether you want it or not, more at home in your adopted city."

This happened to Aronson a few years ago, in the Dallas Airport. He had approached the Lufthansa desk and asked, in English, if there were a train, or a bus, into town.

"And the attendant answered me in German – in Dallas!" He was astonished, but thought, oh well, and continued in German.

"But then I had to ask, ‘Why are we speaking German?’ She smiled: ‘I know that accent.... I thought it would be easier for you speaking in German.’

"And I really felt like a foreigner in my own country."

A cell phone rang; technology again. "I like to say I don’t trust it, but I do use it," he admitted, "I take lots of photos, and send them around. But it’s so easy to lose them."


The vanishing past

The records of our lives are disappearing.

"With the great composers, you would see their process, what they crossed out, maybe even what they threw away. And now you don’t even see their handwriting. It comes right out of the computer screen.

"With music the technology is disconcerting ... it’s the entrance of a foreign object.You are singing Beethoven or Puccini, something of 150, 200 years ago, and the singers are reading it from a device that is for me, when I think about it, is all part of Dick Tracey or Flash Gordon! We are living in our own future."


The irresistible season

As the Christmas season takes over Vienna, and full concert masses ring out in churches all over the city, life at the Opera doesn’t change much; the schedule continues seven days a week, closing only on 24 December, one of the very few days in the season when the house is dark.

"But you can’t be in Vienna at Christmas and not celebrate," Aronson said, "so even though it is not my tradition, I get caught up in it."

What he really loves is New Year’s.

"I can’t get over how, just at the stroke of midnight, everyone opens their doors and windows and plays the Blue Danube Waltz," he said. It is a rare moment, when from roof terraces and balconies all over the city, radios tuned to Ö2 - Radio Wien send the city’s Ersatz anthem out over the night sky.

It is perhaps the most perfect of all waltzes, the one that Brahms regretted he hadn’t written himself. And it is Vienna pur.

Then the next day, the opera is back in action with its traditional New Year’s performance of Die Fledermaus. And David Aronson will be back at work.

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