How two American sopranos founded the Berlin Opera Group and made a splash with their first opera production.

It took a few months after Lyric Coloratura Soprano Atalia Malin and Dramatic Soprano Kelsey Boesche arrived in Berlin to stage a full-blown opera production. In this interview the two Californians talk about their Berlin Opera Group of singers and musicians from around the world, the challenges of the German language, and producing an opera in a foreign city where they knew little of traditions, mentality, and the taste of the local audience.

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Kelsey Boesche as Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Figaro. Photo: Paul Lear

AIF: You put together an ambitious opera production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, having lived in Berlin just a few months. How did it start?

Atalia: It started in a living room in the Berlin neighborhood of Schöneberg after we came back from one of the many auditions, but it did not start with the grand plan to produce and perform the opera in a theater. We wanted to perform and get roles on our resume, and therefore we thought renting a church, hiring a pianist and giving a little concert would be a nice beginning. We posted our plans on the crowdfunding sites Indiegogo and Kickstarter and ended up raising much more money than we had anticipated. It turned out that in Berlin other venues like small theaters are not that much more expensive than a church. We found the Ehemaliges Stummfilmkino Delphi where our colleagues of Opera on Tap had presented “Les Contes de Hoffmann” just a few weeks earlier. We said, “Let’s go for it”, for a real production with a cast, costumes and an orchestra.

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Atalia Malin as Susanna. Photo: Paul Lear

AIF: What were the challenges?

Kelsey: The first challenge was putting together a cast. I had only been in Berlin for five months and I did not know a lot of singers. However, we were able to assemble an international and a fantastic cast through colleagues we met at concerts and through word of mouth. In Berlin you have tremendous opportunities for collaborations with fellow artists.

Atalia: After we announced our intentions on the crowdfunding sites, a conductor offered us help, not financially, but with his talent. He also helped to bring together an orchestra. We planned only one performance, but added a second due to the huge interest we created. Each night around 80 people showed up.

AIF: And how did the audience react?

Kelsey: As the director, I was a bit apprehensive about doing a comedy as our first opera. I hoped that what I found funny, would also be funny to German audiences. I knew that I wanted to modernize both the production and the characters. I wanted to show people how funny the opera can be, but still have “real” characters with real emotions who are trying to deal with a very complicated situation. Fortunately, my gamble paid off and many people came up to me afterwards and said that it was one of the best productions of Le Nozze di Figaro they had ever seen.

AIF: Why did you choose Berlin as the place to pursue a singing career?

Atalia: I have been in Germany for three years, two and a half of them in the southwest of the country, in the states of Rheinland-Pfalz and Saarland. Berlin, however, is the place where every singer from the United States, in fact from around the world arrives, either stays or moves on to other cities. That’s why the atmosphere in Berlin is so lively, constructive, and creative.

Kelsey: Germany has more operatic performance opportunities than any other country. I had planned to move here for some time and I decided on Berlin because I knew it is a city of much culture and history. I am really glad that I made this choice.

AIF: Where and how did you learn German?

Kelsey: I learned German when I was in graduate school at Northwestern University. I knew that I would want to move to Germany someday. So, I took German in school and then later in language programs in my hometown of Los Angeles.

Atalia: Before I moved to Germany, I took German lessons at the University of Redlands. It gave me a foundation but it is a difference if you learn a language far away from the country where it is spoken.

AIF: Why?

Atalia: Here, people speak faster and more natural than in a classroom of a university in America. I stayed where my husband studied, in Rheinland-Pfalz where they speak with a dialect. In the beginning, I had a hard time. I felt forced to be an introvert. I went to parties where people spoke German. I was able to follow, but once I composed in my mind a comment or an answer to a question the conversation had moved on, and I had no choice but to stand by quietly. Today, I understand more. I just sang Papagena at Opera Classica Europa in Frankfurt. After the shows my colleagues and I would go to a restaurant or a bar and I was able to participate in the conversation. They were very helpful and patient.

Kelsey: I think that my German is good enough that I can be understood and I can understand other people. The biggest problem I’ve had is when I receive a complicated e-mail with specific details. Luckily, we live in the age of “google translate” so there are ways around that particular problem.

AIF: What are the challenges in learning a role in German opera?

Kelsey: I think learning a new role no matter what the language is always a challenge. The only German opera I have sung in has been Die Zauberflöte, twice as First Lady, once as Pamina and once as Papagena. However, in recitals, I sing a lot of German arias, particularly Wagner and Strauss, and I absolutely adore the music. For me the biggest challenge with German repertoire is the pacing. The music is so beautiful that you want to sing at your fullest the entire time, but if you do that you will “run out of gas” so to speak. But, once you have found all the spots in which to grow your sound and those where you are tender, it is so rewarding.

Atalia: I actually really like singing in German. Because I live here and am more familiar with the language, it is easier for me to learn a new song or aria if it is in German. Vocally however, it is most challenging to find a way to keep a legato line and simultaneously sing a harsh German consonant clearly.

AIF: What will be next for your opera company?

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Atalia: We call ourselves a group rather than a company. We are more like an opera band with singers and musicians from around the world as well as from Germany. We come together for a project and stay together when we decide to do a new one. Our next production will be La Boheme this October at the Brotfabrik theater in the Berlin borough of Prenzlauer Berg. This time we booked the theater for three shows, for October 13th, 14th and 15th.

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Lyric Coloratura Soprano Atalia Malin graduated from the University of Redlands in 2013 with a Master of Music in Vocal Performance. Her opera roles include The Queen of the Night (Die Zauberflöte), Suor Angelica (Suor Angelica), Fiordiligi (Cosi Fan Tutte), Najade (Ariadne auf Naxos), Papagena (Die Zauberflöte), Madame Herz (Der Schauspieldirektor), Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro) and now Musetta (La Boheme).

More information at www.ataliamalinsoprano.com .

Dramatic Soprano Kelsey Boesche most recently performed the title role in Suor Angelica with Main Street Opera in Chicago. Internationally, Kelsey was a member of the International Lyric Academy’s Tuscia Opera Festival in Viterbo, Italy, for three years. There she played Mimi in La Bohème, Adina in L’elisir d’amore and The First Lady in Die Zauberflöte. Kelsey received her Bachelor’s of Music from the University of Denver.

More information at www.kelseyboesche.com .

More information about the Berlin Opera Group and the upcoming performance of La Boheme at http://www.theberlinoperagroup.com

Watch Atalia’s pitch for support of the Berlin Opera Group’s production of La Boheme.

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