London Workshop (3): Nouns Play Roles, Too

At my recent UK workshop “German for Opera Singers” at the Rich Mix cultural center in London, we discussed the Fidelio quartet. Marzelline falls in love with Fidelio; Fidelio – or better: Leonore – fears complications; Marzelline’s father Rocco gives his blessings to a possible liaison; and because of that Jaquino feels desperate. Four characters, just four lines for each, but a barrage of pronouns. Ich, mich, es, dir, mir, ihn, sie – what is that all about?

On each side of the River Thames, different needs are served.

It has to do with the role nouns, thus things, people, animals, everything that can do something, play in the sentence, in our case, these four characters. In grammar, these roles are called “case”. In the German language, we know four cases. In this quartet we are concerned only with three. One of them is called “accusative.” According to their roles, the pronouns change, too.

Er liebt mich. Two people are involved in this statement, er and the first person narrator, mich. In the middle, we find the verb lieben. Er is active and affiliated with the verb while mich is passive and on the receiving end of the action.


Now, let’s turn it around and reverse their roles. Then we must say, Ich liebe ihn. Er, now on the receiving end of the action turns into ihn, and mich, now active, into ich.

Another role (case) is called dative. Nouns turns into a dative when it becomes the location of an action, or when something is transfered to them, e.g. a present, an opinion, an answer etc, or when something happens to them.


In the latter case, what requires in English two words – to me – needs in German only one, but a new word: Er gibt Blumen. (He gives flowers.)
Er gibt mir Blumen. (He gives flowers to me.)
To me it is strange, miraculous = Mir ist so wunderbar

Please fill in the pronouns.

(2x) mich   (2x) mir   es   ich   er

_____ ist so wunderbar,
_____ engt das Herz _____ ein;
_____ liebt _____, _____ ist klar,
_____ werde glücklich sein.

sie   es   mich

Wie groß ist die Gefahr,
Wie schwach der Hoffnung Schein!
_____ liebt mich, _____ ist klar,
O namenlose Pein!

er   es   sie   ihn   sie

_____ liebt _____, _____ ist klar;
Ja, Mädchen, _____ wird dein.
Ein gutes, junges Paar,
_____ werden glücklich sein.

Three times – which pronoun do we have to use?
mich  or  ich  or  mir?

_____ sträubt sich schon das Haar,
Der Vater willigt ein;
_____ wird so wunderbar,
_____ fällt kein Mittel ein.

Here are the correct answers:

Mir ist so wunderbar,
Es engt das Herz mir ein;
Er liebt mich, es ist klar,
Ich werde glücklich sein.

Wie groß ist die Gefahr,
Wie schwach der Hoffnung Schein!
Sie liebt mich, es ist klar,
O namenlose Pein!

Sie liebt ihn, es ist klar;
Ja, Mädchen, er wird dein.
Ein gutes, junges Paar,
Sie werden glücklich sein.

Mir sträubt sich schon das Haar,
Der Vater willigt ein;
Mir wird so wunderbar,
Mir fällt kein Mittel ein.

Watch and listen to this magnificient recording from 1978 at the Wiener Staatsoper. Marzelline was sung by Lucia Popp, Leonore by Gundula Janowitz, Rocco by Manfred Jungwirth, and Jaquino by Adolf Dallapozza. Leonard Bernstein conducted the orchestra.




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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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