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Students in the German for Singers Program Prepare to Launch their Careers in an Unfamiliar Land and Language

Students share their operatic and language journeys in this short video, which also showcases excerpts from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss with program participant and mezzo soprano Megan Steigerwald taking on the "trouser" role of Count Orlofsky.

For an aspiring opera singer, Germany is a land of opportunity. The country has some 80 active opera houses—more per capita than any other nation—which is why many American singers choose to launch their careers there. But there is a complication: Germans expect singers to be able to sing in German. That’s why Middlebury’s German School launched its German for Singers summer program.

The German for Singers program integrates the study of German language, literature, and culture with the study and performance of German vocal music. Like all students in the German School, participants in this program are required to speak German at all times during the seven-week summer session. This enables them to attain a high degree of language proficiency in a relatively short period of time, while also learning the skills required to become professional artists.

Bettina Mathias, director of the German School, and Stefan Rütter, musical director of the German for Singers program, work on a student performance.

Most of the students who enroll in the program are opera singers. Many plan to move to Germany, find agents, and sing there professionally. But they usually arrive at Middlebury without much German-language proficiency or insight into the vocal repertoire of German-speaking cultures.

Bettina Matthias, professor of German and chair of Middlebury’s Department of German, is the director of the summer program and has been part of its faculty since 2000. She is also a pianist, and her background in music makes the German for Singers program special to her. She says it is important for the students to be able to convey the sense and feeling of the words they are singing, not just the literal meaning. She adds that German is so different from English that it’s difficult for American singers to get the phonetics and phrasing just right.

It is important for the students to be able to convey the sense and feeling of the words they are singing, not just the literal meaning.

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 Mahaney Center for the Arts. In addition, they spend hours in rehearsals for public performances.

At the end of the second week of the program this year, the 13 students, aged 20 to 34, presented an evening of German art songs and arias in a voice recital at the Center for the Arts. At the end of the sixth week, they performed an abbreviated version of Mozart’s Figaros Hochzeit at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. The opera was directed by Matthias, assisted by Stephan Boving of Komische Oper Berlin and music director Stefan Rütter, from Cologne’s music university. The two performances were very well received, and the participation of set designer Andreas Ehlers elevated the professionalism of the production to a new level.

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