As a singer, diction can be one of the hardest skills. Christine, founder and director of GVAI, asked coach and diction expert Ellen Rissinger about how to approach a song in a foreign language and how to enjoy the process.
Ellen Rissinger is an American Vocal Coach/Accompanist on the music staff of the Sächsische Staatsoper (Semperoper) in Dresden, Germany. She started her career in the United States working with companies such as the Opera Company of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh Opera, Kentucky Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Baltimore Opera, Knoxville Opera, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh. She was music director of Glimmerglass Opera's 25th Anniversary tour and of Opera Iowa and was on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University for several years.
In 2003, Ellen moved to Germany, where she has since worked at the Semperoper, Oper Frankfurt, Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Stadttheater Pforzheim, Mainfranken Theater Würzburg. In 2013 she worked with Bregenz Opera Festival on the World Premiere of Andre Tschaikovsky's The Merchant of Venice.
Since 2005 she has been a much-sought-after master teacher with many of the summer music programs in Europe and she joined GVAI's summer opera program in Seattle, WA three years ago.
Christine: You are the co-founder of The Diction Police. Tell us a bit more about it. How you got the idea to start this service for singers?
Ellen: About a decade ago, I had several teachers and coaches in the United States asking me what books they should be using for lyric diction—and then suggesting to me that I should write a diction book. But for me, the limitation of books is that we don’t really get to hear the sounds! In lyric diction, we use the same letters across the languages, but there are subtle differences between, say, a closed vowel in Italian (“sera”) and closed vowel in German (“Seele”). Plus, as much as I love to read, I’m a very aural learner, so I started looking for a way to bring the sounds of the languages alive for singers. For years I’d been a huge fan of podcasts to study languages, so it seemed the logical next step to create a podcast where singers could hear the languages spoken by native speakers who are in the opera world, and hear what they have to say about singing in their own languages.
Christine: In my work as a German diction coach, I find that young singers at the beginning of their studies are not aware of the importance of diction and storytelling in their singing and what impact it can have on their career. On the other hand emerging singers and young professionals book regularly in person or online coaching with me to prepare for roles and auditions. What is your experience and why do you think diction is important?
Ellen: I agree that young singers are often unaware of the importance of lyric diction—partly because they don’t understand how it relates to singing. No one ever seems to talk about how to connect what we learn in diction class to the vocalises that voice teachers do at the beginning of a lesson, much less to the texts in our songs. I’m a big advocate of making sure to remind singers of the rules, and then showing them how to apply those rules to their singing, even their warm-ups. My favorite question is: “What vowel are you trying to sing?”, just to make singers aware of the sounds they are making.
Christine: As a coach at the Semper Opera in Dresden/Germany, you work with international singers all the time. What are the challenges most foreign singers experience with German diction and how do you help them?
Ellen: In general, we all come at a foreign language from our own native language, so each country will have their own problems learning German diction, depending on the rules of their own language. For English-speakers, we have a tough time with “Auslautverhärtung” (hardening the final consonant) when it occurs after voiced consonants like L or N--for example, saying a real [s] sound after the ‘n’ in “vergebens”, because in English that would be a [z] as in “kittens”. When I make corrections, I also remind singers of the rules, so that they can work their way through a new word on their own. And if the word is an exception, I make sure to let them know that, so that they don’t apply the wrong rules somewhere else in the language.
Christine: How do you suggest singers might approach a new song or aria in German?
Ellen: I have a very strict regimen that I apply to every aria/song/opera. Prima la parola!! Basically it boils down to separating out the different parts of singing, text/pitches/rhythm, and working on them each alone, then piecing it together in different configurations. Oftentimes, people just want to sight-read and start singing, and that is actually one of the slowest methods to learn anything—breaking things apart gives you the time to look at each component and learn it correctly, whereas putting everything together all at once means you’re likely to overlook a component.
Christine: Are there websites/books/resources you recommend?
Ellen: Obviously I would recommend a subscription to The Diction Police! We have PDFs with translations and phonetic transcripts, as well as text readings by native speakers, full-length diction courses, Diction Lessons where we highlight a rule of lyric diction by including video clips with examples, Diction Tips where we focus specifically on one point of lyric diction and show examples, tongue twisters for singers with fun texts to turn your tongue inside out.
As for books—my go-to resource is David Adams’ A Handbook of Diction for Singers, which has a rather comprehensive look at the rules of Italian, French and German. Jason Nedecky also has the excellent French Diction for Singers, which a list of over 7,000 proper names and places and their phonetic transcription, of words from the standard repertoire. Of the specialty languages, Timothy Cheek’s Singing in Czech, Lydía Zervanos’ Singing in Greek, and Anna Hersey’s Scandinavian Song are all books I would highly recommend.
Christine: The internet offers us unlimited audio and video material of singers from all over the world. What are your favorite German singers that young singers can learn from?
Ellen: My list of people to listen to nowadays would include Christoph Pohl, Georg Zeppenfeld, Rene Pape, Jonas Kaufmann, Christa Mayer, Diana Damrau, Manuela Uhl. For old school singers, I love Peter Schreier, Theo Adam, Kurt Moll, Christa Ludwig, Rita Streich, Anneliese Rotherberger.
Christine: Language is always evolving; performance practice and taste changes. In my coaching singers sometimes wonder when I advise them to change their rolled R's at the end of words and they refer to a Fritz Wunderlich recording that they found on Youtube. What is your opinion about that?
Ellen: My answer to that is exactly what you said—performance practice is always changing. Nowadays, rolling the Rs at the ends of words usually feels very old-fashioned, especially in intimate Lieder texts. My one caveat to that is Wagner—for some reason, the Wagner repertoire still tends to get more rolled Rs throughout than in any other style, so when you hear the rolled Rs that Jonas Kaufmann sings in everything, remember that he sings a lot of Wagner!
Christine: What are the differences between speaking and singing in German? How do you approach vowel modification when the range changes?
Ellen: Spoken German, just like spoken English, has a few sounds that can be swallowed or softened. In the same way that we swallow drop off syllables, that can happen in German—in fact, in Duden Aussprachewörterbuch, many schwa syllables are completely dropped in the IPA. As for softening—in English, medial ‘t’ can become a [d] sound, as in “later”, rather than a full [t]. This can also happen in German at the end of a consonant cluster like Stunde, where the ‘t’ ends up becoming almost a [d]. All of these sounds in lyric diction should maintain their ACTUAL phonetic sound.
When it comes to vowel modification, I think my biggest concern is that many people think “modification” means “sing [a]”. That’s not what it means at all. Modifying a vowel is a very specific tool to make things ring better in certain parts of the voice, and often the closer we remain to the original vowel, the better. For example, if the high note is on [i], try singing [y]. If it’s a form of [e] or [o], try [œ] or [ø]. Many times, the combination of a fronting vowel with some lip-rounding is a great solution for high notes, rather than simply trying to sing [a].
Christine: You’ve been working in Germany now for 16 years. What is your personal success recipe of first getting an excellent German diction and then also German fluency?
Ellen: I started with a good basis in the diction, and apply it to each new word I learn, even now. Especially at the very beginning, I kept lists of words I’d never heard before, and in the breaks I would look them up. I love flash cards used to run through them every chance I got, standing in lines, during staging rehearsals, on the treadmill, etc. But I didn’t look at the English word on the other side—I tried to look at the thing that was named on the card. For example, for “das Fenster”, I would look at the windows. In fact, I found myself doing that at breakfast the other morning out with some American friends—when they asked what “Fruchtaufstrich” was, I started miming spreading jam before I could think of the word in English!
Christine: Thank you so much, Ellen, for sharing your insights with us and for regularly being part of GVAI's summer opera program.
Please let our readers know how they can find you and The Diction Police.
Ellen: Our website is www.dictionpolice.com and you can follow The Diction Police on Facebook, Twitter, Linked In and Instagram @dictionpolice !
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Most blog posts from June 2017 - June 2018 were written by GVAI's blogger Anikka Abbott who has just started her journalism studies. We already miss her. Learn more about her here or connect with her on Facebook.
Hello, I am Christine, the director of GVAI, a passionate singer, German diction, voice and performance coach. I love music, singing and dancing. Life is an exciting journey and I invite you to walk with me....