The audience gets a super-title translation at recent production of 'The Magic Flute," but performers must learn the German.
The audience gets a super-title translation at recent production of 'The Magic Flute," but performers must learn the German.

Language lessons set the stage for opera students’ success

Performing a German opera demands practice, a fine ear, a great voice and the ability to read the accent marks that convey nuanced meaning and pronunciation. And you also have to open your mouth. A lot.

Students who starred in Opera Chapman’s recent production of
The Magic Flute
discovered that for English-speaking Americans, particularly Californians, German opera presents the challenge of singing “less horizontal.”  Less horizontal as in, “Dude, use your jaw.” Drop those chops a bit and open the back of your throat to wipe out that flat rumble sound and instill a soaring resonance. It’s a challenge known well by vocal performance major and soprano Emily Dyer ’14.

“Part of living in California — it’s a dialect thing,” says Dyer, who overcame that and learned a bit of German as one of the leads in
The Magic Flute
, presented this spring by the Conservatory of Music in the
College of Performing Arts

It’s just one of the many things to master when preparing for a full opera in a language that’s not your native tongue. Students may or may not have taken all their language requirements when they land a role in one of the great classic Italian, French or German productions that Opera Chapman stages each year, but the audience need never know. Thanks to the conservatory’s diction coaches and the entire Opera Chapman team, vocalists sail through even the longer works, like
ambitious fantasy tale


Emily Dyer ’14, Professor Peter Atherton and Daniel Shipley ’15 will reprise some of Opera Chapman’s best work at an upcoming meeting of the university’s Board of Trustees.

“Working with German was a huge challenge for me. It was a really epic undertaking, but it was so much fun,” says Daniel Shipley ’15, who played Papageno, the bird-catching baritone, in the German-language opera. But Shipley got there. “It made it a lot easier to memorize once you knew the translation.”

It doesn’t happen quickly, though. Months before the production opens, the students cast in the opera study their music, translate the lyrics to grasp the story and begin articulation practice using the International Phonetic Alphabet, a notation system that guides foreign-language students and performers. Only then do the meetings with coaches begin.

“You’re responsible for learning the notes and kind of trying to plunk out the pronunciation yourself, so you have a general idea and you’re not wasting the coach’s time. And you’ll take what you’ve worked on to a coach and they’ll listen to you line by line,” says Dyer.

That’s where the practice and fine ears and skills of adjunct faculty and Opera Chapman diction coaches Cheryl Lin Fielding, DMA, and Janet Kao, DMA, come in as they hone the students’ intonation and pronunciation. Also coaching the students is the entire Opera Chapman production team, including Peter Atherton, DMA, director of Opera Chapman, as well as David Alt, DMA, and
Carol Neblett
, artist in residence.

To demonstrate the results of all that practice, Dyer sits in Atherton’s office one recent afternoon and sings a line from her role as Pamina in
The Magic Flute
, forcing herself to sing it in an ordinary tone. To the casual listener, it sounds nice enough. But then she opens up and sings the same line again in the trained, practiced and robust German style, and her voice fills Atherton’s office, each word distinct.

Such skills will pay off for the students, Atherton says.

“That’s really an integral part of their training. Because when they go to audition for graduate schools, not only are they listening to the vocal quality and technical development, but they want to hear the student’s skills with languages. When you get on a professional stage, you’re expected to sound like a native speaker,” he says. “So getting these foundations now is important.”

The Magic Flute
in your repertoire is handy, too, since it’s one of the world’s most-performed
, Atherton says. Already cast members from the latest production have been scheduled to perform it again in December at the Fox Theater in Riverside. And Dyer and Shipley will sing portions at the next meeting of the Chapman University Board of Trustees.

Dawn Bonker

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