Talented singers learn German for Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro”

MIDDLEBURY –– World-class opera usually comes to Addison County but once a year at the June Opera Company of Middlebury performance. And even then it is not usually opera sung entirely in German.
But over the past six weeks 11 singers have studied, prepared and rehearsed  in German for performances here this weekend of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
They are taking part in the German for Singers and Vocal Coaches program, which was started in 1999 and runs simultaneously in Middlebury with the summer German School at Middlebury College.
Talented singers from around the world, many of whom have never taken a German language class, can apply to the program to improve their German or learn the language for the first time. This is the second year that the program has learned an opera.
Familiarity with German is an important skill for most opera singers, explained Bettina Matthias, the program director and German professor at the college.
“It is for singers who want to get ready to sing in Germany, who want to audition, or study or just go there for a project,” she said. “They really need German. There is so much work in Germany, but you have to know German otherwise nobody will hire you.”
The German opera industry differs from opera in the United States. Matthias explained that Germany is a desirable destination for many singers.
“We have over 80 opera houses in Germany and they all have eight, nine, 10, 11 operas per season,” she said. “You can go see four different operas in one week. People who work at opera houses normally have contracts, they’re employees, they have benefits, they have patient time, they have rights, they have unions. It’s really a place where singers want to be. You can actually have a life and really grow as a singer.”
The Middlebury program runs for seven weeks and includes beginning to advanced German students. Matthias and her colleagues run classes tailored for the program.
“They have diction, they have acting classes, a class in German cultural history,” she said. “They have four hours of instruction in the morning. Then they work with Stefan (Rütter, the music director) in the afternoon and we have a singer from Berlin with us who teaches voice and we also do a theater workshop.”
Matthias and Rütter wait until they have the full roster of singers to choose the opera so it fits their cast. They chose “Figaro” because they ended up with just one tenor and that opera has few tenor parts.
Matthias explained that in the first week, the group focused on staging the opera because most singers had minimal experience with German. As the summer went on, the singers’ knowledge grew and they began to pick up the language’s nuances.
As the vocal coach and music director, Rütter saw marked improvement.
“The coaching is nearly the same as it is in Germany, it’s working on style, phrasing and articulation,” he said. “But, of course, in the first weeks with the beginners, it has to be mostly nonverbal because they don’t yet speak German. I can sing for them, I can show them on the piano, there are ways to teach without using words. But they get better from day to day.”
The ability to both sing and communicate in German is crucial for these singers, Rütter said.
“I think that’s most important, that they learn and can be able to have a production in Germany, maybe with a German conductor or a German stage director, and can follow this very specific language,” he said.
Matthias and Rütter are looking forward to the culmination of their singers’ hard work with two performances of “Figaro” this weekend. The first performance will be Friday at the Town Hall Theater at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $15. The second showing is at the Vergennes Opera House on Saturday, also at 8 p.m. and admission is free.
Rütter believes their hard work will pay off.
“This is the most important, that they get better singing German from week to week,” he said. “It is really hard work and they got better from week to week.”

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