Monday, May 1, 2000

VIENNA The internationally renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir is in an uproar over the diaries of a 13-year-old boy claiming its 100 choristers are maltreated and exploited.

The diaries of Rene Schober, a member of the 500-year-old choir until two months ago, describe a harsh regime in which choristers face draconian discipline, austere living conditions and a stressful and grueling concert schedule.

The diaries, published in an Austrian magazine with the permission of the boy’s parents, have reignited criticism of the choir, whose young members can earn upwards of $88,000 in their short careers. The choir vigorously denies the complaints.

According to Rene’s diaries, boys are punished by being forced to stand still by their beds for hours, or are marched in pairs up and down the Augarten Palace, the choir’s headquarters in Vienna.

Despite promises by the authorities four years ago that reforms would be introduced, nothing had changed, he wrote.

In 1997, amid similar controversy, the choir appointed its first female artistic director, Agnes Grossman, to soften its image. But she resigned just over a year ago, complaining she had been prevented from making improvements.

She accused the choir’s management of putting money from commercial tours above everything else and ignoring the possibility of sponsorship and larger grants to win greater autonomy.

Rene, who was moved by his parents to a mainstream school in February to concentrate on more academic work, said last week: “When Agnes Grossman took over, we thought things were going to change.

“There were to be no more punishments, like standing still for hours by your bed, or marching through the palace in rows of two. And they also promised us that we would not have to do so many concerts and have less stress. But her plans for a fifth choir to ease the stress never happened.

“In Vienna, we often had three-to four-hour rehearsals, and if we weren’t quiet the whole time it would be extended by an hour. Even when we had exams, the rehearsal was always more important.

“And so some of us had to sneak into the toilets in the middle of the night with a pocket lamp to study. Otherwise, we would never have managed it.

“We all slept in a big room 25 children in steel beds. The head of the teachers once tried to buy wooden beds from Ikea, but the board said it was out of the question. And there are only eight showers for 100 boys.”

He said trips abroad were a nightmare: “The worst thing is the stress on tour. Sometimes we were eight hours in the bus, six days in a row, then we gave a concert and continued to the next performance.”

But the board of the society of the Vienna Boys’ Choir, which was founded in 1498 by Emperor Maximillian I, issued a statement saying it rejected the charges, which it said were based on “untruths and fantasy.”

The choir’s finances are secret, but the organization has an estimated annual turnover of nearly $3.2 million, and millions of people purchase its recordings every year.

The choir functions like a strict boarding school. A typical daily schedule for those not on tour starts at 7 a.m. with study in the morning and singing in the afternoons. At 4 p.m., it is time for sports. Lights go out at 9 p.m.

The boys, ages 9-14, are split into four choirs. From September to December, two choirs are on tour, while the others complete the first school term.

Then these choirs go on tour from January until March. From April until June, all four choirs are in Vienna and complete the second school term. Each boy performs in about 100 concerts a year, abroad and in Austria.

The entire year’s school syllabus is crammed into seven months and classes are intensive, with only six to 10 pupils per class.

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