Relatives of Captain and Maria von Trapp have been touring for a decade, and now they call Central Texas home
By Michael Barnes for Austin 360
Updated: 12:23 p.m. Saturday, June 30, 2012
Published: 8:23 a.m. Saturday, June 30, 2012
Heavily, the piano pumps out the rhythm. After a decent interval, the first gentle notes emerge from the four costumed siblings. The achingly simple lyrics find new life in their silky, unsullied tones. The three sisters and their brother break into more complicated harmonies and ascend the final high notes of the sentimental song as easily as they’ve taken to the stage.
The effect is chilling.
One reason: Singing “Edelweiss” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Sound of Music” are the great-grandchildren of Captain and Maria von Trapp, a touring foursome known until recently as the Von Trapp Children.
Sofia, 23; Melanie, 22; Amanda, 20; and Justin, 17; are reinventing themselves as the Von Trapps, a more grown-up ensemble that applies their famous choral inheritance to a wider range of music. The Montana natives recently appeared with the Portland, Ore.-based concept orchestra Pink Martini at ACL Live, where they announced, like so many other artists, that they’ve moved to Austin.
Dripping Springs to be exact. Which is perhaps as close as they could come in Central Texas to
mountainous Kalispell, Mont., where they grew up with dad Stefan von Trapp, a stonemason, and mom Annie Everitt von Trapp, their road manager. Their great-grandparents lived, of course, amid the Austrian Alps and their grandparents among the Green Mountains of Vermont.
“Not that we always try,” Sofia says, “but it must be in our blood that we’re always attracted to mountains.”
Cue: “The hills are alive …”
To some extent, the Von Trapps have already made it.
Like the Trapp Family Singers — which included grandfather Werner, who was renamed “Kurt” in the 1959 stage musical adaptation of their lives — they’ve circled the
globe with performances in places like China, Rwanda and Australia, where they sang at the Sydney Opera House.
As the Von Trapp Children, they cut five albums and appeared on “Oprah,” serenading Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer and other cast members of the 1965 movie, briefly the highest grossing movie of all time. They also performed at
the Hollywood Bowl for the 40th anniversary of “The Sound of Music,” singing for 18,000 people.
“It was hilarious to see a sea of cellphones waving in the air like lighters during a rock show to ‘Edelweiss.’ ” Melanie says.
It’s hard to beat that kind of exposure.
Yet after 11 years on the road, wearing unflattering dirndls and lederhosen and taking breaks to attend college, they’ve earned the respect of serious musicians and discerning critics. Recently, for instance, they’ve been training with Jan Smith, vocal coach for Usher and Justin Bieber.
Strange as it may seem, the von Trapps did not always sing. Their stonemason father showed no inclination for musicality.
“It kind of skipped a generation,” Amanda says.
“We listened to silence during car rides,” Sofia says.
In their early years, the children were only vaguely aware of their family’s legacy. Sofia remembers watching the movie when she was about 5 years old.
“I was so enraptured by Julie Andrews and the music and the story,” Sofia says. “It didn’t really click that it was my grandfather.”
She and her siblings didn’t understand the musical’s broad cultural influence — “The Sound of Music” was the first Western movie shown in China after the Cultural Revolution, for instance — until they left Kalispell.
“We all grew up with it like everyone else,” Amanda says. “We didn’t realize the impact until we started touring.”
“The Sound of Music” did help them connect with strands of family history.
“Watching the movie, I remember being really surprised or dumbfounded,” Melanie says. “It wasn’t because I knew it was that popular. It’s just, ‘Wow, that’s my family.’ … I remember looking through a sketchbook of our great-aunt Agatha — who in the movie was portrayed as Liesl — she had a picture in the sketchbook of Maria coming to the house for the first time in an ugly dress just like in the movie. The family stories and the movie really meshed.”
Their grandfather, the second-oldest son of Georg Ritter von Trapp (the widowed naval commander) and Agathe Whitehead (who died from scarlet fever), had taught them various songs on visits to Montana. He had a stroke in his 80s.
“To make him feel better we made a tape of the songs he taught us so he could listen to it in the hospital,” Sofia says. “Somebody heard that and said, ‘Why don’t you make a full CD?’ ”
They did so on a lark without much urging from their parents. Then they opened for pianist — and a friend of a neighbor — George Winston before signing on for a national tour. Justin was 7.
“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Amanda says. “We chased it and embraced it for what it was.”
Although they clearly enjoy making a career of music, the von Trapps have taken a systematic path to success. Sofia learned a lot about the music business at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Melanie concentrated on music and business at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. Amanda, a natural leader, studied politics at Tiffin University, and playful Justin took correspondence courses from Chicago’s Wheaton Academy.
“I was undercover at school,” Amanda says. “I didn’t tell anyone who I was, so for a whole year all my friends thought I was an undercover agent when I would jump into black cars and be gone for the whole weekend to do shows. It was fun!”
They’ve learned a lot, too, from the copious literature on their family’s show business story, starting with Maria’s 1949 best-seller, “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers.” And for those who are a little too bedazz
led by the fictionalized stage and movie musical, there’s “The Movie vs. Reality: The Real Story of the von Trapp Family,” inspired by Joan Gearin’s research in the National Archives. (For one thing, the von Trapps did not escape Austria by climbing the mountains into Switzerland. They left on an approved tour of Italy.)
“One thing we really respect about our story is that our grandfather had the courage to stand up against persecution, to do what was right when there was so much to lose,” Sofia says. “The family was already a famous touring group before they escaped Austria, and while they were on a radio show the host asked if the family would sing happy birthday to Hitler. They refused three times and, along with the Captain refusing a position in the submarine fleet, knew they were now on the blacklist. They escaped soon after that, but we are so proud to come from that courageous decision.”
Texas — especially such spectacular places as Big Bend National Park — has served as a family vacation spot for years. The siblings were drawn to Austin’s openness to creativity before moving to Dripping Springs on Dec. 23.
“This atmosphere is one of the many reasons that we are loving living in Austin,” Justin says, “because we also love to explore and aren’t conventional in our approach to music either. It’s a perfect fit!”
After touring nine months out the year, the von Trapps relish a chance at domestic life, including the chance to do their own cooking and laundry.
Any social life?
“We’re working on it,” Amanda says. “One of the good things about touring for so long — we are all each other’s best friends.”
Nowadays, they are toying with musical genres, recording an album with Pink Martini and prepping for another Asian tour. They benefit from a refreshed public interest in choral singing — credit “Glee” — as well as 1940s harmonies and groups that blend classical and jazz with pop, like the mostly a cappella Swingle Singers.
Justin is writing songs guided, he says, by an interest in world music.
“So far my songs have a very folk tendency,” he says. “But I am experimenting and creating in many different ways, so I hope to bring in a big span of influences into my writing.”
At last, he and his sisters can leave behind some of the Austrian folk costumes.
“Lederhosen and I have been inseparable since the earliest childhood, even before our musical career,” Justin says. “We’ve been through it all together! However, with a very sentimental attachment to the past, I look forward to a future of more modern attire. Who knows though, maybe they will come back into fashion.”
Sometimes, the interest and even adulation directed at the von Trapps because of “The Sound of Music” has been bewildering.
“We met one woman who had seen it 365 times, once a day for a year,” Amanda says. “Being so exposed to everyone else’s emotions, you start exploring with what it means to you as well.”
“It’s not been so extreme that we felt danger,” says Melanie.
Amanda gets the interest: “People want to know what happens next in the story.”
Contact Michael Barnes at email@example.com or 445-3970
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