AN AMERICAN IN GERMANY – THE PARAMOUNT IMPORTANCE OF GREAT DICTION.
The American singer is highly respected throughout Europe, especially in Germany, where
substantial numbers of any theater’s fest (fixed or permanent) ensemble are American. Coming
in as a close second numerically are singers from Korea.
American singers are respected for their preparedness, their work ethic, and their energy. A
singer at a German theater, a French woman, told me that in fact some colleagues were a bit
intimidated by American singers for exactly the reasons listed above. We’ll leave aside for the
moment the points of cultural contention: i.e., Germany, American “smiley-ness” and easy
cultural familiarity are often not at all appreciated where strangers become friends only after a
fairly long process of mutual familiarity.
That said, the burden on the American singer to acquire fantastic diction is a serious one. This
burden is compounded by the fact that, even among Germans, opinions about what constitutes
good diction and some of its finer points (Schwalaute, etc.) diverge. Let us leave aside entirely
the many disagreements among American academics and music professionals concerning proper
Top-notch stage diction in German is critical to success with the public there. I have heard
mediocre singers praised for their diction (“Du verstehst jedes Wort!” “You understand every word!”)
above and beyond the quality of their vocal sound. And singers whom I considered very fine
(including some stars, not to be named here), were poorly regarded because their diction was
deemed unclear. A certain star tenor is hotly debated in Germany, many loving his clarion high
notes, others intensely disliking his baritone middle voice.
My intent here is not to activate the age-old “prima la musica, e poi le parole” debate. It is to
stress to the American singer who aspires, when this pandemic is over, to attain success in
Germany the paramount importance of superb diction. I cannot overstate the importance of
speaking your roles when preparing them. Particularly in Wagner, where the texts are dense and
idiosyncratic, it is a much better use of time to declaim the libretto, with total understanding of
each word, no matter how archaic or arcane, than to go over the music again and again.
Another stumbling block in singing German is the misconception that open vowels are “covered”
or “darkened”. In fact, the opposite is true, open vowels are truly open (“Schlaf, “Traf”) and
closed vowels are truly closed (Los, Not). Schwalaute (Gehen, stehen, wandere, ) (IPA ǝ)
rhyme with “nun”, although some German singers will be heard singing them more brightly.
You must be prepared to be put through the mill by coaches and conductors in German houses.
Your diction will be criticized relentlessly, and you will hear over and over “Mehr Text!” (more
text!”.) Your job is to ensure that your technique is so solid that it can withstand these demands.
It goes without saying that studying the German language is of paramount importance, not only
to ease your passage into employment in the German theater system, but for the obvious reason
that having some German in your armament will help you transition into daily life in Germany.
I can’t imagine a wiser use of time during the pandemic shutdown than devoting yourself to
intense study of German.