Have you ever dreamed of taking the role of a stage director in a German opera house and barking orders? Maybe, one day you will, and then you will not only have to manage stagehands and singers, but also the German language. How do you form what is grammatically called an imperative, the tool that transforms a verb into a command, an instruction, a demand, or simply a recommendation? My book Ach ich fühl’s – German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing gives the answer. Here is an excerpt:


To form a command we have to put the verb like machen, singen, lachen in the first position. If we address the person with du (second person familiar), the verb must appear as verb stem only, blunt and without the ending -en. Also, we have to drop the personal pronoun (du).

Mach eine Pause.

The same applies, if we speak to a group of people we individually address with du. We say ihr (y’all!).

Macht eine Pause!

We include the pronoun, when we address the person with the formal Sie.

Machen Sie eine Pause.
Singen Sie.
Lachen Sie!!

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.

Albert Lortzing’s opera “Zar und Zimmermann” takes place in a shipyard in Saardam, Holland. Here, the Russian carpenter Iwanow has to pretend to be the tsar while the real tsar is negotiating incognito in the corner with the British and French ambassador. Iwanow loves the maid Marie, who loves him back, although they have their quarrels from time to time.

Marie enters. Duett. (Watch the video below.)


befehlen = to order, to command
der Grobian = ruffian

Jungfrau Marie!

Sie befehlen?

Man geht hinaus! (“One leaves” – imperative third person)

MARIE beiseite
Sieh einmal an. (“Look at this” – imperative second person)

Jungfrau Marie!

Sie befehlen?

Man bleibt! (“One stays” – imperative third person)

MARIE beiseite
Der Grobian!

To tease Marie, 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.”

The verb sein (to be) changes for second person formal (Sie-people).
Seien Sie nett. (Be nice.)

First person singular, familiar (du-people)
Sei still! (Be quiet!)

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

The aria is called, “Seien wir wieder gut!” (More about this aria: Click.) 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.

Singen wir jetzt.

Pron.             singen                    sein
Sie                 Singen Sie!             Seien Sie still.
du                  Sing!                       Sei still.
ihr                  Singt!                     Seid still.
er, sie, e         Singe er                 Sei er still.
wir                 Singen wir!           Seien wir still.

More information about the book: Click.

The following recording was taken from YouTube. Lucia Popp (Marie) und Peter Haage (Iwanow) sing the aforementioned duet from Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann.