Love Letter – geschrieben, bekommen?


In the Tchaikovsky opera Eugene Onegin, the drama begins with a love letter written by the young lady Tatyana to Onegin who is a friend of her soon-to-be bother-in-law. In preparing the production of the opera, singers and employees of the Komische Oper in Berlin were asked to tell about the first love letter they have written or received.

The question posed to the people, “Schon mal einen Liebesbrief bekommen/geschrieben?” is a half-sentence. We miss (and don’t need) the subject of the question and the auxiliary verb that together with the participle create the perfect tense:
“Hast du … ” or “Haben Sie … “
The infinitive of
bekommen is … bekommen.
The infinitive of
geschrieben is schreiben.
The interviewees respond spontaneously and speak fast. They use colloquial phrases. Read the vocabulary below first, then watch the video.

Oh Gott, das ist lange her = that’s a long time ago
Ich habe den Fehler begangen, den Brief weiterzugeben. Fehler begehen = to commit a mistake

Das war eine Tuschezeichnung.
die Tusche = india ink

Willst du mit mir gehen? Ja, nein – kreuze an.
Mit xy gehen = to be with someone romantically.
ankreuzen = to check a box in a form

vor allen Dingen = above anything else

Ein Herz war mit rotem Filzstift gemalt.
der Filzstift = felt-tip pen

der Pausenhof = schoolyard

The lady in the brown jacket says, “Ich habe ihn geschrieben an einen Freund, der war wesentlich älter als ich.” She emphasizes the word “wesentlich” (here: significally).
Her next sentence is about the friend’s profession which seems to have a bad connotation in an opera house. She uses a rare form of subjunctive just to underline how incompatible that profession (der Beruf) is with the work of creative people:
“Er hatte einen Beruf, den wir, glaub’ ich, hier alle nicht ausführen wollen würden.”
Normally we say, “den wir nicht ausführen wollten.”
Wollten is the subjunctive of wollen, but also its past tense. To make sure that we understand her somewhat ironic tone, she uses würden als auxiliary verb. (Turns out that the man’s profession was Finanzbeamter = tax collector.)

Er führte nicht zum gewünschten Ziel.
“Er” is the pronoun of der Liebesbrief.
das Ziel = target, goal

Der kürzeste Liebesbrief hat nur ein Fragezeichen (question mark) und ein Ausrufungszeichen (exclamation mark).


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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.

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