The ‘Schmusechor’: A choir that speaks up

© Nina Keinrath

The ‘Schmusechor’ (engl. Cuddle Choir) captivates not only with interpretations of Aretha Franklin and David Bowie. The queer-feminist singing ensemble also doesn’t shy away from being politically outspoken.

 A visit to the rehearsal by Chiara Joos

With powerful steps, Verena Giesinger stomps on the floor, thrusts her arms forward, and exclaims, „You have to pronounce it really wildly!“. A choir of tightly packed alto, bass, mezzo-soprano, soprano and tenor voices responds to their conductor Giesinger with a loud, drawn-out „Juuuust“. In a small room at Brut Wien, a production and performance venue for the performing arts, Giesinger rehearses the New Year’s concert with the ensemble, the Schmusechor. These rehearsals mark only the beginning of upcoming performances and an impending theatre production. The weeks leading up to the Science Ball leave no gaps in the calendar. Giesinger and the voices of the ensemble are not only locally popular in Vienna but have already established a resounding reputation beyond the borders of Austria.

Nevertheless, they do not conform to what is typically associated with the word „choir“. The notions of a stiff singing ensemble dissolve, especially when Giesinger and the 50 choir members enter the room and start singing pop covers from the Backstreet Boys’ „I Want It That Way“ to Alt-J and David Bowie, and even Flight Of The Conchords, Comedian Harmonists, and Japanese anime melodies. People, including quite a few to be read as male, with bold red lipstick and colorful nail polish, who, without even starting their performance properly, are already breaking common gender role stereotypes. Colorful outfits, leather accessories, and elaborate headgear are just as much a part of it as the shared passion for singing, making the appearance of the Schmusechor completely unique in Austria.

More than just singing: The YouTube channel of the Schmusechor proudly presents the fusion of „The passion of the most sinful telenovela meets the vocal range of Mariah Carey.“ But behind the dazzling facade lies a serious commitment that makes the queer-feminist choir a political heavyweight.

In May 2022, the choir took a stance with the hashtag #NoStageForSexism, sparking a broad media debate. The criticism was directed against an Austrian music figure who not only glorified drugs but also provided space for sexist and racist verses in their lyrics. However, the Schmusechor’s aim is not to engage in „Cancel Culture“ but to highlight structural problems in the arts and cultural scene: musical diversity and fair payment.

Despite the now 50 members of the Schmusechor, decision-making is collective. Spontaneous multi-day retreats are called, and there is no conventional selection process. In the summer of 2022, the choir opted for a „speed dating“ instead of a traditional casting to accommodate the strong influx of applications.

The political dimension of the choir is also evident in the three stages of the selection process, where not only singing and costume rehearsals are undergone but also the choir’s social and political values are examined. The Schmusechor wants to be more than just a safe space and emphasizes growing responsibility on political, entrepreneurial, and social levels.

Verena Giesinger, the self-taught conductor, leads the choir not only creatively but sees herself as a pioneer breaking down rigid roles in the music industry. In 2024, she became the first woman to conduct a Viennese New Year’s concert.

The idea for the Schmusechor originated ten years ago in a Meidling shared bedroom. The name combines cuddling and singing but symbolizes more than that. The choir is meant to be a place for those who don’t see themselves in typical choirs. Due to its growing popularity and unconventional approach to the selection process, the Schmusechor has quickly grown and evolved into a musical counterpoint to societal currents.

You can read the full text in the 2024 ball magazine, which will be published on the evening of the ball.