Robert OpratkoBorn: March 17th, 1931, Vienna (Austria)
Still in the late 1940s, Opratko joined the Austrian All Stars, a jazz band which included other young musicians who were destined for an impressive career in music, such as Hans Solomon (1933-). Opratko about this period: “In those days, there were lots of American clubs in Vienna, where soldiers of the allied troops came for an evening of relaxation. This was a golden time for dance bands such as ours; we were never short of work. In our orchestra, however, there was a double-bass player who did not play very well… to put it more bluntly, he was awful. I was the pianist and I could not stand one of my fellow-musicians ruining our performances. For that reason, I decided to learn how to play the double-bass myself.” What was more, Opratko took up studying the double-bass at the Vienna Music Academy (1951-’52), leaving the conservatory when he was satisfied with the level he had reached.
To please his father, Opratko gave up working as a music professional to learn a ‘proper job’. After having left conservatory in 1952, he began working as a salesman in a wholesale trading company. The attractions of the music industry proved too hard to resist, though, and when he was offered the opportunity to make two tours in West Germany as a double-bass player with the Heinz Neubrand Trio in 1955, Opratko did not hesitate and made the choice to be a musician once and for all. After his spell with Neubrand, Opratko joined the Horst Winter Tanzorchester, where he stayed for one year (1956-’57). At the request of Winter (1914-2001), Opratko swapped the double-bass for the piano again: “Horst Winter hired me to be his double-bass player, but when Heinz Neubrand, the pianist in his orchestra, left two days before our first performance, he asked me to convince him of my skills on the piano. After having heard what I was capable of, Winter simply said: ‘From tomorrow onwards, you are my man on the piano’. I never played the double-bass again after that.”
Between 1957 and 1965, Opratko was the pianist of the Johannes Fehring Orchestra, replacing Hans Hammerschmid, who left the ensemble. Opratko: “My time with Fehring was extremely important. He gave me the opportunity to write loads of arrangements for the orchestra. I tried out all kinds of new things. Fehring taught me some instrumentation in the evening hours. Around the same time, I took a private conducting course with the conductor of the choir of the Vienna State Opera.” In those years, Opratko also played the piano in the national broadcaster’s radio orchestra, the ORF Rundfunktanzorchester of conductor Carl de Groof. He composed and arranged dozens of pieces for De Groof’s orchestra annually. His work for Fehring and De Groof did not impede Opratko to accompany several artists on European tours, including Maureen René and Udo Jürgens in Romania, whilst he was the musical director for Peter Kraus during his tournee in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, and West Germany. Moreover, he arranged four one-hour-long shows for Caterina Valente which were televised in the Netherlands.
All musicians of the Fehring band worked as session musicians as well and Opratko was no exception. From 1957 onwards, he worked as a pianist and arranger with producer Gerhard Mendelson on countless recordings for the German branch of Polydor in Vienna. Amongst the songs for which Opratko wrote the arrangement, the most well-known is perhaps ‘Der Boss ist nicht hier’ for Freddy Quinn (1961). Other artists who recorded their work in Vienna with Opratko, included Peter Kraus, Bill Ramsey, Maureen René, Freddy Quinn, and Lolita. In the late 1960s, Opratko arranged three albums for Udo Jürgens, for whom he had already written the orchestration for the song ‘Jenny’ with which the singer won the 1960 edition of the Knokke Festival (Belgium). Opratko was never short of work: “We recorded music day and night… that is no exaggeration. We were in the studio from 9am until 6pm. When I returned home, I usually wrote an arrangement, which I took to a copyist around midnight… and the next morning, we recorded it! On average, we recorded six songs a day.”
In 1965, Johannes Fehring became the musical director of the Theater an der Wien, a theatre for musical performances. Most of his orchestra came with him. While Fehring mostly worked behind the scenes, it was Robert Opratko who conducted the majority of the shows performed. Between 1965 and 1974, Opratko wrote new arrangements to the stage shows ‘Can can’, ‘Irma la Douce’ and Georg Kreisler’s ‘Polterabend’. Moreover, he conducted famous musical successes including ‘Der Junge von Sankt-Pauli’ (1965), Udo Jürgens’ ‘Helden Helden’ (1972), and the German-language versions of ‘Kiss me Kate’, ‘Fiddler on the roof’, ‘Man of la Mancha’, ‘Hello, Dolly!’, and ‘Cabaret’. Opratko did not only work on musicals, but arranged and recorded music for the ice dancing shows of the Wiener Eisrevue as well (1971-’72) and penned a new instrumentation to Ralph Benatzky’s operetta ‘Im weissen Rössl’, which was staged in the Wiener Volksoper.
Between 1970 and 1980, Robert Opratko was the artistic director of the Austrian branch of record company Polygramm. He composed, arranged, and produced music for many artists from different genres, but was especially successful with artists from the world of cabaret and theatre, with whom he recorded chanson albums. He arranged and produced seven albums of Michael Heltau, whose German versions of Jacques Brel repertoire were immensely appreciated. With Ludwig Hirsch, he recorded the successful album ‘Dunkelgraue Lieder’. Other vocalists in the same genre with whom Opratko worked during this particular period include Werner Schneyder, Peter Cornelius, and Erika Pluhar. Opratko recorded the first three studio albums of André Heller and composed many songs for him, including ‘Das berühmte Jean Harlow-Lied’ (1970) and ‘Du du du’ (1971). His collaboration with Heller was particularly fruitful and both men teamed up to write songs for Marianne Mendt, another musical star turned recording artist, who subsequently specialized in Viennese dialect repertoire. Amongst the best known Heller/Opratko compositions for Mendt are ‘So a Tag’ (1970), ‘I mechat unsichtbar sein’ (1970), and ‘Wann i könnt, so wie i wollt’ (1972). Opratko also produced pop repertoire, including the first album of Reinhard Fendrich, ‘Ich wollte niemals einer von denen sein’ (1980) as well as a host of Austrian folk music artists. Opratko, in jest, about the latter group of performers: “Twice every year, I was in Tirol for three or four weeks to produce folk music albums. At Polygramm, we worked with everything which was able to hold an accordion or a guitar in its hand!”
Robert Opratko had made his TV debut as the musical director and piano accompanist of mime artist Sammy Molcho at the 1965 Rose d’Or Festival in Montreux; this Austrian participation, called ‘The do-it-yourself-show’, finished eighth. He conducted two Austrian entries to the World Popular Song Festival in Tokyo, Japan: ‘Danke schön’ for Aniko Benkö (1973) and ‘Ich verschenke meine Träume’ for Peter Cornelius (1974). He also represented Austria as a conductor in song festivals in Bulgaria (again with Peter Cornelius), Romania, and Poland (with Marianne Mendt, 1970). In the 1970s and 1980s, Robert Opratko became one of Austria’s most sought-after musical directors for television. Amongst many other things, he worked on the ORF children’s show ‘Am, dam, des’ for eight years, a program which was broadcast live daily from Monday until Friday, each episode including two or three new songs composed by Opratko. He led the band in popular music shows for ORF and German broadcasters ARD and ZDF, most prominently ‘Willkommen im Club mit Harald Juhnke’ and ‘Liedercircus mit Michael Heltau’, the latter of which ran for more than seven years; in these programmes, Opratko accompanied countless German and international pop music stars. Moreover, he conducted several TV shows with musical and operetta repertoire.
In 1980, Opratko left Polygramm to begin his own production company, Alpha Music. For his label, he recorded one album with Peter Horton as well as projects with actor Alexander Goebel, comedian Hans Peter Heinzl, and many local folk musicians. He sold Alpha Music in ’89. Between 1984 and 1988, Opratko worked as the first conductor of the Wiener Burg- und Akademietheater; in this capacity, he composed the music to three plays: ‘Heimliches Geld, heimliche Liebe’, ‘Der Schützling’, and ‘Umsonst’.
The most important artistic collaboration for Opratko in the 1980s and 1990s, however, was with star singer Peter Alexander (1926-2011). From the mid-1980s until 1996, Opratko arranged and conducted all of the stage shows with which Alexander toured the German-speaking countries. In 1987, when Alexander hosted the opening ceremony of the Austria International Centre in Vienna, Opratko’s sixty-man-strong orchestra accompanied internationally renowned vocalists such as José Carreras, Placido Domingo, Barry Manilow, Gilbert Becaud, and Udo Jürgens. “My fruitful collaboration with Alexander started somewhere in the 1980s”, Opratko comments, “when he was a guest in a TV show in which my band provided the music. Peter Alexander is without any doubt the best professional with whom I have worked throughout my career. He was there during each and every recording in the studio, from the first day onwards. He closely watched everything we were doing and he gave us precise directions about things he wanted changed in the music. It was very special to have an artist who was so focused on details. He knew exactly what he was doing and what he needed.”
In 1988, Robert Opratko started working as a répétiteur with the Vienna Music Academy. One year later, at the request of the academy, he became director of the musical and operetta department of the conservatory. Under the leadership of Opratko, now adorned with the title of professor, the department was successfully reformed, resulting in a huge influx of students from Austria and abroad. He also orchestrated and conducted the annual academy operetta and musical theatre performances. In 2004, he was pensioned off.
Nowadays, Opratko still works on various music projects as an arranger occasionally. He has been the vice-president of the Austrian Association of Authors, Composers, and Publishers (AKM-Österreich) since 1980; moreover, he is the acting president of the supervising council of the Austrian Copyright Collecting Agency (Austro Mechana).
Robert Opratko in the Eurovision Song Contest
“In those days”, Opratko comments, “I regularly arranged songs for Udo’s albums. It was Udo himself who personally asked me to arrange and conduct his composition for the Eurovision Song Contest with Karel Gott. I had never met Karel Gott before. I soon found out he was a good guy. Although we never met up professionally again afterwards, we have always remained friends as a result of this one week in London. We scored badly, true, but London was a great experience for me. First, there was this wonderful Royal Albert Hall where the contest was organized. Moreover, it was the first time ever for me to conduct on television – as you will understand, very exciting!”
Opratko continues: “We were there with a small delegation. Udo himself was present and of course Beierlein, the publisher. As far as I remember, there were two people from ORF and that was it! The rehearsals did not pose any problems. Communication with the orchestra musicians was easy, as I speak some English thanks to the many years I played in the American dance clubs in Vienna after the war. The musicians said they liked our song, but I experienced in the festivals all over Europe and beyond I did in the years after, that musicians always say that to any conductor. ‘Yes, your song will win, it is the best in the competition!’, was what they used to say. Most of the times the orchestra for festivals like these is very good; that was certainly the case in London. The musicians were very eager to please the guest conductors. I also got the impression they liked the music they were playing and, throughout the rehearsals, the atmosphere was most pleasant”.
“For Udo Jürgens, the result in London was a huge deception”, says Opratko. “He had written a song in the style with which he himself was immensely successful in Germany at that time. ‘Tausend Fenster’ was hardly played on the radio after the contest and there was no chart success whatsoever. On the other hand, for me personally, this Eurovision Song Contest was quite important. It was interesting to find yourself in a different environment, meeting up with all kinds of people and getting the opportunity to listen to what other European countries came up with. Yes, it was a wonderful experience!”
In the two years after, Austria did not participate in the Eurovision Song Contest. Its return was in 1971 with Marianne Mendt and a song with a powerful melody in Viennese dialect, ‘Musik’ (written by Richard Schönherz and Manuel Rigoni). Schönherz penned a most spectacular brass orchestration to his own song. Robert Opratko, who was Mendt’s producer at that time, was asked to conduct the orchestra in the international final held in Dublin. One year prior to the contest, he had already accompanied Mendt as a conductor to the Sopot Song Festival in Poland, where she sang ‘Wann i eam nur vergessen könnt’. In the Eurovision Song Contest, ‘Musik’ finished sixteenth with eighteen countries participating.
Opratko has a very outspoken opinion about why Marianne Mendt failed to impress the European juries: “We went to Dublin with the wrong song, although I must admit I am not completely objective. There was an internal selection in Vienna to determine which song Marianne would perform. In the end, there were two songs, ‘Musik’ and ‘I hob di’. This second song was mine, with words by André Heller: a song with an instantly memorable chorus; moreover, it was rhythmically and harmonically more in line with what was in the charts in those days… something which would have fit in the Eurovision Song Contest excellently, if you ask me. But the jury in Vienna had another opinion. Johannes Fehring was in it and he said: ‘It is crystal-clear; ‘Musik’ is the song for us!’ By stating his opinion so bluntly, he strongly influenced the final outcome. And so we travelled to Dublin with ‘Musik’ and we finished near the bottom of the scoreboard once again. You will not hear me say anything negative about Schönherz’ composition, because it is a wonderful song with jazzy undertones… a good melody, harmonically very interesting. The arrangement was certainly good, but slightly pretentious… something which, to my mind, could be said of the song as a whole.”
“However, being in Ireland was an unforgettable experience”, Opratko recalls. “What a beautiful country it is! It was the first time I went there and, unfortunately, I have never been back. I would have loved to have come back to do some more sightseeing. We did not have much opportunity to travel about due to all rehearsals. We were in a much smaller venue than the Royal Albert Hall three years before… a tiny theatre in the centre of Dublin. The orchestra was good and the Irish organisation was up to the task. Of course, I did not have any expectations of doing well in the voting, as I did not believe in our song. Moreover, I felt Austria was some sort of ‘nobody’. To put it exaggeratedly, we Austrians entered the building through the back door. We were not important and we never tried being important, being too modest to try to direct attention towards us. The Germans, for example, always made sure everyone knew they were there; they were more dominant. Although I cannot prove it, I have the impression Austria often did so badly in music competitions, because we were only little Austria. Luckily, in this case, being defeated in the Eurovision Song Contest has not harmed Marianne Mendt’s career in the long term. She continued recording albums and later had a wonderful career in theatre and on television.”
Other artists on Robert Opratko
Willy Fantel has worked with Opratko on many different occasions: “We have known each other since the 1950s. In 1955, he brought me some of his first compositions to have these played by my band. Later, we played together in countless sessions in the Vienna recording studios and, during a tour in Romania, he played in my band. We were on the board of the Austrian Association of Authors, Composers, and Publishers (AKM) at the same time. Following his career, I have always admired him for his qualities as an instrumentalist, arranger, and bandleader as well as for his diligence.” (2011)