Giving and Taking Orders – the Imperative

“Seien wir wieder gut” – Heerstraße 2 in Berlin, birthplace of “Ariadne auf Naxos”.

As a singer you either take orders (from the Regisseur) or shout orders (to your entourage) depending on your rank in the hierarchy of the opera world. However, grammar is democratic. Its rules applies to everybody. No matter who you are, you have to know how to form a command or, as the linguists say, an imperative.

If we want to form an imperative we must put the verb in the first position. With second person familiar (du) the verb appears as verb stem only, blunt and without ending. The personal pronoun du disappears.

Mach eine Pause.

With second person formal (Sie), the word order in imperative is the same. We add a little bit of politeness by including the personal pronoun Sie.

Machen Sie eine Pause.
Singen Sie!
Lachen Sie!

With ihr we drop the personal pronoun again.

Macht eine Pause!

In olden times, and certainly in libretti, blue-blooded characters address people of lower class in third person. In this case we conjugate differently but include er, sie, es or man.

In Albert Lortzing’s opera “Zar und Zimmermann” the Russian carpenter Iwanow speaks to the maid Marie while pretending to be the tsar of Russia. He orders her to leave the room by saying, “Man geht hinaus.” Maria understands, and as she is about to leave he calls her back.

“Man bleibt.”

To tease Maria (of course, he is in love with her), Iwanow uses the most distancing pronoun possible, the indefinite pronoun man that stands for everyone, no one specifically. He doesn’t even form a real imperative, but simply states a fact. To make an imperative he should have said, “man gehe hinaus” and “man bleibe”. Today we would say, “Gehen Sie hinaus” and “Bleiben Sie”.

The verb sein changes for second person formal (Sie).
Seien Sie nett.

First person singular, familiar (du):
Sei still!

Second person plural, familiar (ihr):

Seid nicht so dumm!
After an argument with his music teacher, the character of the young composer in “Ariadne auf Naxos” asks in a conciliatory tone to be good again.

The aria is called, “Seien wir wieder gut!”

The character introduces another level of imperative, directed at wir, the first person plural.

The imperative with wir is less a command, more a suggestion.

Trinken wir einen Tee.

Es ist langweilig (boring). Singen wir jetzt.

Next update: Sunday, August 12th .

Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s