At 100-Year-Old Middlebury Language School, Opera Singers Perfect Their German

Jul 15, 2015

Every summer for the past 100 years, Middlebury College has hosted an unusual language study program: students sign a pledge that they will only communicate and interact in the language they are studying for the entire six or seven weeks of the program.

Eleven languages are taught using this strict immersion approach, and the programs attract students who range from art history undergraduates, to business people, to ... sopranos? One specialty program among the traditional language programs is German for Singers, a course that attracts aspiring professional opera singers.

About 20 students sit around a table in a German literature class, their three-ring binders are open and photocopies of text are spread out in front of them. The students aren't allowed to talk to visitors in English. But their instructors, like Hans Gabriel, aren't beholden to the language pledge.

Gabriel explains the day's lesson after class, describing how he started with a reference to Charles Darwin, then focused on the text of Hansel and Gretel, moved into Bertold Brecht's philosophy of theater and wrapped up with a discussion of Richard Wagner's music. Not too shabby for beginners.

"You can see in the discussion - it's sort of a struggle for them to be able to express themselves in German. Their German level is low, but their intellectual level is high," says Gabriel. "As opera singers, they have a lot of this background knowledge, so the key is really to find a way in the limited German to reference that and then to allow them to feel that they can reference it as well."

Bettina Matthias, director of the German School, displays the opera sheet music for "The Magic Flute", or Die Zauberflöte, during a singing lesson held by instructor Stephan Boving at Middlebury College.
Credit Patti Daniels / VPR

The German for Singers program attracts mostly opera singers. Many of these students plan to move to Germany, find agents and sing there professionally. But they arrive at Middlebury without much German language proficiency, their instructors say.

The students have three to four hours of classroom study each day, and then go across campus to work for another two to three hours with singing coaches and music instructors at the Performing Arts Center where, again, all instruction is in German.

Three singers are participating in today's rehearsal for an opera they'll perform later this summer. Each takes a turn rehearsing at a music stand next to the shiny black piano at the center of the room, and then two of the students, Emily Donato and Adam Caughey, practice a duet from Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Donato and Caughey both plan to pursue careers in Germany this fall, says Music Director Stefan Ruetter, who accompanies them on the piano. He works with the students to perfect the sound of the notes they sing.

Singing instructor Stephan Boving steps in with a bit of coaching, too. "You may have seen it, his breath doesn't get deep enough," explains Boving gesturing to his own diaphragm. "When the breath of a singer is more in the chest, it disturbs the vocal cords."

The students' voices are stunning, but the instructors are listening for detail.

"American singers are used to a different kind of pronunciation," says Ruetter. "Of course, the German audience will know better what [the singers] are doing well or what they are doing wrong, but it has to be correct for the music, that the words are as clear as possible."

"German is so different, it's so jumpy and springy," says the director of the German School, Bettina Matthias, and she says it's difficult for American singers to learn the phonetics of the language because its style is so different from English.

 

"German has a very particular sound system and sound world. And I want them to understand it as a musical world that is clear to them, makes sense and has a cultural component that they want to convey to the audience." - Bettina Matthias, German School director

As each student rehearses, Matthias and the fellow singers and instructors look on attentively; they mouth the words, and make notations on their sheet music. Matthias' background in music makes the German for Singers program special to her. "German has a very particular sound system and sound world," she enthuses. "And I want them to understand it as a musical world that is clear to them, makes sense and has a cultural component that they want to convey to the audience."

Matthias says that even after working in the German language school for 15 summers it's still satisfying to her to watch the students throw themselves into what she calls a "crazy linguistic and social experiment." As the student conclude rehearsal on a perfect notes, Ruetter claps with appreciation, "Danke! Super! Sehr gut!"

The German for Singers program at Middlebury College will stage an opera at the end of their summer program. They encourage the general public to attend, regardless of the language you speak.