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German school offers unique niche for singers

MIDDLEBURY — Since the debut of the Middlebury College Language School Program in 1915 it has grown exponentially. That very first summer it only offered a single language, German, but now applicants can choose from 13 languages, two of which were added in the last three years: Abenaki and English.   

In addition to expanding the quantity of languages offered, individual programs, including the 108-year-old German language school, have become more robust. Most programs offer at least two different paths of study, with others offering even more.  

This summer’s college language school gets underway this Friday, June 23. The college will bring more than 1,500 students to its campus and its other venues to study and speak foreign languages through Aug. 18.

This is a special year for the German Language School: This summer, the German Program for Singers celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Director of the German School and the German for Singers Program Bettina Matthias said the Program for Singers was designed “in 1998, was modified to really focus on professional singers in 1999,” in an effort to cater the school’s German language education to more niche audiences.

And after the first year of the program in 1998, the school discovered an untapped source of demand: Professional singers became the target audience for what a program with its current name.

“Classical singers might be the last professionals to really need German — up to 50% of their repertoire … is in German, and the German-speaking opera scene is most attractive to singers from all over the world,” she said in an email. 

Additionally, Matthias notes that the German job market can offer professional singers opportunities impossible to find in the U.S.   

“Opera houses in Germany, Austria and Switzerland still hire singers for so-called ‘fest contracts,’ meaning that they get hired to sing for a full season (or more), are guaranteed a certain number of productions, and, what is a radical difference compared to U.S. houses: They get benefits (unemployment insurance, paid vacation time, health insurance, retirement contributions etc.).”

It’s these jobs that students are after. 

“Many go abroad after our summers together to audition, and some of them actually land a job and subsequently have great careers,” Matthias says.

In honor of this milestone, 11 singers in the program will be performing in Germany at the conclusion of this summer’s program. 

“We will be traveling to the town of Scharbeutz, right on the Baltic Sea. It is a small seaside resort about 70 minutes north of Hamburg (which is the airport we’ll fly into), 20 minutes north of the Hanseatic city of Lübeck,” Matthias says. 

She says the trip is one opportunity for students to network and “Some of our more advanced singers hope to get a chance to be ‘heard.’”

“We have also arranged for an agent to hold an audition on site on the last day of our stay there.”

She considers the trip “a series of fantastic coincidences.”

ONE-WEEK PROGRAMS

The timing of the trip isn’t the only musical coincidence of Summer Language Schools 2023. This summer also happens to be the first that Middlebury College will offer a one-week Russian choir program. 

According to Molly Baker, associate dean of Language Schools, this new program was designed with the success of the One Week Refresher Course that the Russian school offers. This program was initiated with former students of Russian in mind, and aims to provide them with the opportunity to reacquaint themselves with the language.  

“It is one week because our one-week alumni program has been very successful, people say getting away for more than a week is difficult,” Baker explains.  

Unlike the German Program, none of the nine students in the Russian Choir Program are professional singers. 

“Just people who want to continue their study of Russian,” Baker says. 

Want to see the results of the German for Singer’s Program in person? Go to the  Seeler Theater in the Middlebury College’s Mahaney Arts Center to see students perform “Figaro’s Hochzeit” on Aug. 11 and 12 at 8:30 p.m. It is open to the public.

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