A Dictionary Alone Won’t Work

Interview with Berlin-based American mezzo-sopranos Anne Byrne and Sarah Ring about the opera organization Opera on Tap, living in Berlin, and the German language

Co-managing divas: Mezzo-sopranos Anne Byrne and Sarah Ring present opera in Berlin-Neukölln

More than a decade after it started in “Freddy’s Bar and Backroom” in Brooklyn, Opera on Tap, a network of classically trained singers, has spread throughout America. Small groups of singers meet in a bar or a cafe on a regular basis, and present arias, opera scenes, or Lieder to a young and new audience. A chapter of Opera on Tap exists for a year now also in Berlin, Germany. Ach ich fühl’s spoke with Anne Byrne and Sarah Ring, the two Berlin-based co-managing divas, as they call themselves. Anne Byrne is a New York-born mezzo-soprano who moved to Germany after she received her Masters of Music from the New England Conservatory. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Ring, born and raised in Michigan, has been living in Berlin since September 2014.

AIF: The Berlin chapter of Opera on Tap is the first outside the U.S. How many singers have joined it, and where do they come from?

Anne: Opera on Tap has thirty-five to forty singers. They appear on a rotating basis, six singers per show. We are all from all around the world, many from English-speaking countries, but also from Europe, who came to Berlin to practice their art and develop their careers.

AIF: Where do you perform?

Anne: We perform in venues that are unusual for opera. Once a month we give a show at Prachtwerk, a cafe with performance space in the hip and raw neighborhood of Neukölln, where young people usually sit with their laptop computers and drink local beer. We also give a monthly Liederabend in another venue in Berlin, at the Das Galerieforum “Berlin am Meer”, in Prenzlauer Berg.

AIF: And the patrons with their laptop computers leave when you enter the stage?

Sarah: Not anymore, if they ever have. In the beginning we invited our colleagues, but the crowd grew quickly. Sometimes it is very big event here at Prachtwerk with more than hundred people. People who heard our music on the street when they were passing by come in and stay. Many are curious because they don’t expect that kind of music in this neighborhood. They don’t have to order tickets in advance. There is no entrance fee, but we do go around asking for donations during the pause. Everything is relaxed.

AIF: For you, too?

Anne: Yes, we can chill. We get on stage, sometimes with a drink in our hand, dressed casual, sometimes with the horns on our heads, and start singing.

AIF: What do you present? Complete operas?

Sarah: We give concerts of arias, mostly with a theme. For Halloween for example we presented only Bösewichte (villains). The last show was dedicated to duets and trios, and the next show will be dedicated to German repertoire. We encourage the singers to introduce the aria before they start singing, and to talk briefly about the context in the plot.

Anne: We did a full opera production of The Tales of Hoffmann, recently. We produced it after a successful Kickstarter campaign in a former silence movie theater called the ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi. It is from the 1920s, was closed for some time after the war and reopened a while ago. The original interior is still that of the 1920s, so we didn’t need much stage setting. The theater itself was the stage.

AIF: Why did you choose Berlin as the place to be as a singer?

Sarah: It is a center of opera in many respects. There are three opera houses in Berlin, and as a result there is a large network of very talented coaches and teachers. The level of teaching here is outstanding. We can meet great singers, too, and going to opera is incredibly affordable. You can get a ticket as cheap as ten Euro. Sometimes, I see an opera twice a week. There is an artistic atmosphere in Berlin. It has a thriving art and music scene and a growing Internet start-up industry. Also, Berlin is an affordable place to live.

AIF: How do you experience the language in Berlin? To study the language at your university in the U.S. is one thing, but another thing is to be in the actual enviroment where you have to understand, to read, and most important, to talk.

Anne: Actually, Berlin is unlike other cities in Germany a place where you can live, maybe for years, without speaking or understanding one German word. You can get through life using only English. So, I had to be proactive and ask my German friends to speak German with me and to correct me when I make mistakes. My attitude is, “Why live in a foreign country and not speak its language?”

Sarah: It feels great to have a conversation, actually understand what is being said and get your point across. Germany has many dialects and accents. My husband has a family friend here in Germany, from Swabia. We recently went to visit her and it was interesting to hear the schwäbisch dialect, though certainly a challenge to understand as a non-native speaker at times.

AIF: What are the biggest challenges in singing German opera?

Sarah: The challenge is to keep the natural cadence of the language when I sing. It requires a lot of control. I also feel the pressure when singing to a German audience, that I would like to understand what I sing. They are honest and direct, and tell you when they did not understand what was sung.

Anne: I noticed that my speaking German has been seeping into my singing German. The pronunciation of spoken German is different than that of the German we sing. For example, there is the “ch”-sound in “ich”. In their accent, old Berliners say “ick” or “icke”. New Berliners with an immigrant background tend to say “isch”. Only few people in Berlin say “ich” in standard pronunciation. When I found a certain touch of Berlin accent in my singing I asked a diction teacher to correct my diction.

AIF: How do you prepare an aria or a role in German language?

Sarah: There are translations available, but I try to translate the text myself. This way, I can dig deep into the language and find many parts of the texts that are moving.

Anne: I always start with the text, even when the temptation is big to sing first and take care of the text later. It is important for me to know the text thoroughly before I sing it. The first thing I do as well is making my own translation.

AIF: What advice do you have for voice students regarding the language?

Anne: Learn the language, as much as you can. If you really understand the language, you will see how much thoughts and emotions the arias convey.

Sarah: I agree. To understand a text just by using a dictionary does not work.


More information about Opera On Tap in Berlin and in the U.S.: Click.
Watch here a report of the German-French tv station Arte about Opera On Tap in Berlin: Click.
Watch the Kickstarter video for the Opera On Tap production of The Tales of Hoffmann last February.


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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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