A Memorable, Moving, and Musical Spring Break Trip, Two Years in the Making

When COVID-19 forced the Roxbury Latin Glee Club’s spring break to be canceled in March 2020, no one knew when students might return to school, much less travel the world. But RL’s singers finally went back on the road for the first time since spring break 2019, arriving in Munich on March 11 to begin a long-awaited adventure through Austria and the Czech Republic. The Glee Club’s first stop was Obdach, a small village 220 miles southeast of Munich in central Austria. 

“We red-eyed on Friday, to Munich,” said RL’s Director of Music Rob Opdycke. “So the real rough day was Saturday, March 12, because we had a six-hour bus drive to Obdach. Some boys slept, some boys took in the scenery and all the strangely shaped church steeples and skylines.”

Obdach, a village of less than 4,000 people, is not a tourist destination in the mold of Vienna, Salzburg, or even Český Krumlov—all subsequent stops on the tour, but the town has a unique tie to Roxbury Latin.

“Obdach is not typically on anyone’s itinerary,” says Mr. Opdycke. “We go there because it’s the childhood home of our tour guide, Marco, and his mother, Ushi. Kerry Brennan met Marco and Ushi 45 years ago on an Amherst glee club trip. At the time Ushi was the tour guide and Marco was five or six years old.”

Today Marco Riha runs the tour company MusArt, founded by his mother, Aranca (Ushi). And on the first night in Obdach, the group dinner coincided with Ushi’s 80th birthday party. The boys were invited to sing for the guests in between sets by a traditional oom-pah band—an authentic introduction to Austria.

“We’re talking tuba, accordions, and clarinets,” says Mr. Opdycke. “It was awesome. Pints of beer were flowing (not for our boys, of course, but in the bar), and the boys were encouraged to sing along to German songs they didn’t know. And in turn, they offered their singing—everything from Glee Club songs to Sweet Caroline.

The next morning the boys sang for Mass at the Parish Church, where Peter Bacher, the mayor of Obdach, welcomed the group, while the local newspaper, Obdacher Gemeindenachrichten, covered the concert. From there the tour traveled 137 miles northeast to Vienna.

“I joked with the boys that they transitioned from being local celebrities in a small village to typical tourists in a big city,” says Mr. Opdycke. “Vienna was great to see—the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the center of so much great German music, so many composers. Our hotel was right near Schönbrunn Palace, which is the summer home of the Hapsburgs. Some boys would go on morning runs just in the gardens of Schönbrunn. It was a wonderful opportunity.”

In Vienna the Glee Club had two opportunities to perform, first for Mass in the city’s renowned Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, and again the following day during Mass at St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche), a smaller but no less stunning Baroque church nearby, where they had a special guest in attendance, U.S. Ambassador Victoria Reggie Kennedy.

“Ambassador Kennedy sat with Mr. Brennan,” said Opdycke, “and then delivered some remarks to the boys afterward. She even took some questions—just like a Hall speaker would take questions. It was wonderful. Her message was that the type of diplomacy the boys were doing, in being American tourists, performing music, and coming with goodwill was as important as any diplomacy she can do from her embassy.”

On March 16 the group departed Vienna and made their way toward the Czech border, stopping first two hours west at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp. The visit was a profound experience for everyone, and several boys offered prayers of mourning and remembrance—some in Hebrew, some in English, many in silence. Mr. Opdycke remarked that so much of the tour celebrated the best of human society: artistic, architectural, cultural. Mauthausen presented an example of the worst.

“I had brought boys there 14 years ago, as well,” said Mr. Opdycke. “It was somber. It was profound. It felt important to bear witness. The boys spent a good two hours—mostly in silence, some in a state of prayer. And that was an important aspect as well. So much of the tour was about the high end of music-making—for worship or for concerts, for audiences—but paying witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust and seeing that place? I think that will be a major takeaway for the boys on this trip.”

An hour and a half later, the group reached the medieval Czech town of Český Krumlov, stopping off at a bus park and walking beneath a centuries-old viaduct into the town. They also received a two-hour tour of Český Krumlov, ending in the top courtyard of the second largest castle in the country (just shy of Prague). 

Later that evening, across the Vltava River at the Jesuit Hall, the Glee Club presented its longest concert of the tour, performing all of the Glee Club and Latonics repertoire for the locals who attended.

“Český Krumlov hadn’t really opened up yet, so we were the only tourists in town,” said Mr. Opdycke. “That Thursday night was our only concert that wasn’t in a church, and we had a piano so we were able to do our pieces with accompaniment, and we were able to perform not only our sacred songs, but all of our pop stuff that wasn’t necessarily appropriate for a church setting. All told, the boys performed about an hour and 15 minutes’ worth of music before they went off to a post-concert dinner. That was a great visit. Our 54 boys slightly outnumbered the audience, but not by much. The opportunity was much more about the singing than the audience.”

“There is something significant about being able to perform wonderful choral music that was originally composed to be part of a church service. It is typical to perform beautiful, sacred music in concerts, but to have the opportunity to perform it as part of a worship service—like we did for the Mass in Obdach and the Mass in Vienna—was powerful. For some of the boys who are Catholic, that was part of their Lenten worship. For other boys who are Protestant, it was the same. For boys who are of other faith traditions, or don’t practice a faith tradition, it’s still meaningful to be able to contribute. The beauty of music is helping a congregation to be part of a state of worship. I told the boys whether you are of this faith or not, you are contributing to a process of worship that should make it more meaningful than just singing the song to an audience at a concert.”

The Glee Club’s final stop was in Salzburg, 150 miles southeast. There the group enjoyed a city tour, after which the Latonics held court busking in front of Mozart’s birthplace. 

“With the Latonics, there’s a long tradition of finding opportunities to busk,” said Mr. Opdycke. “To sing on the street for the public, to put out a hat. It’s not as much about collecting the money as it is about interacting with passersby. They did that in both Vienna and in Salzburg. In Vienna they got a nice crowd in Stephansplatz, and in Salzburg they picked the spot right in front of Mozart’s birthplace and got an impressive crowd. I think they made 175 Euro, which was a pretty good clip. They gave some of it to a homeless person, and they’re using the rest to buy some Latonics swag.”

Busking is just one of many RL traditions being rekindled as school life and spring break trips return to pre-pandemic normalcy, but Mr. Opdycke was impressed by the boys’ ability to maintain continuity in the face of unprecedented interruption.

“It wasn’t lost on me that this was the first Glee Club trip in two years. All the institutional memory of boys being in the routine of doing this had to be restarted. There were only two students on this trip, Eli Bailit and Ale Philippedes, who had done a Glee Club trip previously—to Los Angeles as freshmen in 2019. And here they were as senior leaders on this trip. The boys were impressively cooperative, patient, and punctual. I was very pleased that they seemed to understand that while it was a chance to have fun and kick off the spring, it had certain parameters and school rules in effect. They didn’t push the envelope, they were where they needed to be when they needed to be there. They were in their rooms for bed check. They were incredibly positive about the whole experience. I was so pleased that they all brought a good attitude.”

The cooperation of the 54 boys made relatively easy work for the four faculty members on the trip—Chris Brown, Michael Beam, Kerry Brennan, and Rob Opdycke. The group returned from its tour on Sunday, March 20, weary from jet lag and 10 days of intense travel and performances, but energized and restored by the opportunity to share its music once again with a global audience.

“In all of its travel programs, RL is trying to help boys think of themselves as global citizens,” said Mr. Opdycke, “not just as citizens of greater Boston, or even of the United States. I hope they take away from this experience a sense of a common humanity, of seeing other cultures up close and realizing that there’s so much we have in common, even if our languages and customs are different. The boys saw quite a few blue and yellow flags, a lot of solidarity with Ukraine being expressed. In fact, there were a couple of Ukrainian refugees who were making their way into Český Krumlov when we were there. We obviously didn’t know while planning this tour that there’d be a global conflict just to our east, but the boys saw how real that is for Europe. For the students to be on the other side of the Atlantic and see how intertwined that continent is with the world’s geopolitics was significant.”

“Finally, from a musical perspective, bringing your repertoire outside of the friendly, ‘home court’ audience, and performing for an audience that’s just there out of curiosity—not rooting for you because they know you—is so important. The boys stepped up nicely to present and be proud of how they sounded, of the music they were making. We’re proud of sharing this music in a part of the world where music has a high level of traditional excellence—Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn. So much of the height of music-making—especially in the 18th and 19th century—happened in that part of the world. And here we are, representing to the best of our ability. It was such a memorable, worthwhile experience.”