Herr Kaufmann


Getting rid of all of my junk, I sort through my compact discs, wondering which ones to keep. Then I remember an odd encounter I had back in the 1980s on a train bound for Vienna. At Linz, an elderly gentleman got on board and we struck up a conversation. He mentioned that he was headed to the Opera House for business. Intrigued, I asked what he did for a living and he said he was a professional cougher.

My German was never that great, so I assumed I had misunderstood him. But then he went on to explain that he had spent several decades attending classical concerts and coughing during the silent moments. Apparently, he had coughed at all the great Herbert von Karajan concerts and Deutsche Grammophon paid him handsomely. He explained that without the coughing, the listeners could not be certain that the performances were recorded live. 

Naturally, I thought he was pulling my leg, but then he coughed, and sure enough, I knew that cough. It was that same damn cough, or actually, a pair of coughs, that happened in a dramatic pause of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony recorded in Berlin on November 1962, just at the five-minute mark. I asked him if he had coughed during that exact performance. He said he had coughed throughout that performance. I told him I was a fan, and he got me a ticket for that evening’s performance of the Fledermaus. He was contracted to cough during the Overture, then tone it down. I asked him if he had ever sneezed during a performance. He said never on purpose.

That night I went to the opera but was disappointed that the cougher was not there. Maybe it was all a put on? But then I saw him the next day at the Sacher Hotel sipping tea. I told him I had missed him at the concert. He said he could not attend, due to a bad cold that he was still nursing.