Nowhere Else But Here

Singers who have whole-heartedly embraced the language of their roles tend to use it in real life too. But be aware! Although most words and phrases you sing are common in modern German, others are outdated and some you can find nowhere elso but in opera libretti.

Some time ago, I heard an opera singer from abroad asking a person of romantic interest, “Hast du ein Weib?” After all, a Weib appears in almost all German operas. While this question might have been a normal phrase two hundred years ago, people today would look at the singer stunned and speechless, few even shocked. Today, the word Weib is an insult, a derogatory term for a woman. Luckily, our friend who was approached gave a smile and answered “Nein.” The rest is history.

(The adjective weiblich though, describes something belonging to the feminine gender and is part of the common vocabulary.)

Here are more words often used in German libretti.

First: Abbreviations

f = feminine noun
m = masculine noun
n = neuter noun
irreg. = irregular verb
obs. = obsolete, old word

Aue f = meadow
bang = afraid
dräuen = to threat, today: drohen
dünken obs. = to seem, irreg. er, sie, es deucht
Eidam m obs. = son in law
erhaben = sublime
erkoren = to chose
erlaucht = illustrious
grämen = to grieve, to worry
grollen = to be resentful, to grumble
harren = to wait with great expectation
heischen obs. = to demand, to ask for a favor
hold obs. = graceful, lovely
Huld f = favor, grace
lauter = earnest, pure
laben obs. = to refresh
Los n = here: fate
Minne obs. = love between a knight and a woman of higher rank
minnig obs. = kind, loving
Ohm m obs. = uncle
sehnen = to long
sehren obs. = to hurt, to injure
wallen = to flow, to surge
Weise f = here: melody
ziemen obs. = to befit, to be appropiate
Zähre f obs. = tear

Soon: Read phrases and expressions often used in German libretti

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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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