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German World, May 2007
Sing to the Mountains!

Notes Soar High As Singers Learn Opera in Austrian Alpine Village

On a summer night, a gentle breeze stirs the fields of tall grass and wildflowers surrounding the Achensee (Lake Achen) in the Austrian Alps near Innsbruck. From the open windows of the school the strains of Mozart, Puccini and Offenbach soar over the water. The young singers and pianists of the Tyrolean Opera Program (TOP) are preparing for their first concert of the season. Artistic Director Elizabeth Bachman moves back and forth in front of the singers, correcting a hand position, exhorting a singer to smile and energizing the group. Musical Director Kathryn Wright of the Deutsche Oper Berlin is bent over the pianist’s shoulder, pointing out details on the page.

Bachman, a well-known opera director based in San Francisco, has been in the opera business for over 25 years, working in companies in the US, Europe, Argentina and Japan. Although she has often worked with stars such as Luciano Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle and Placido Domingo, her greatest joy nowadays is passing on those years of experience to the stars of tomorrow.

The Tyrolean Opera Program is now three years old and its fame is spreading. TOP brings North American and Austrian singers together for three weeks to study voice, acting, dance and languages. “I am a stage director,” Bachman says, “and I work with young singers all the time. I am appalled to find how many of them are uncomfortable with the basic requirements of how to move onstage. TOP’s mission is to train the whole performer, with an emphasis on how to integrate the acting and the music. We also offer classes in the business of opera – something that is rarely taught in the schools.”

International exchange is an important part of the program. The English-speakers practice their German and the Austrians learn to sing in correct English. Laughter is heard often as words and concepts are exchanged. All classes take place in both languages. Everyone is speaking the language of music, so comprehension comes easily.

The TOP staff is pulled from the great opera houses of Vienna, Munich, Berlin, New York, San Francisco and Salzburg. Master Teachers such as world-famous soprano Elizabeth Futral and Maestro Edoardo Mueller of La Scala come to share their expertise the students. A special favorite is the Yodeling Class!

Starting tomorrow the TOP singers will begin a round of concerts before packed houses in Maurach, Pertisau and Schwaz. But now it is late in the evening. The last of the sunset is gilding the tops of the mountains and a bit of mist hang over the lake. All five pianos have been in use for the last hour, but the cacophony of Bizet, Bellini and Bernstein has calmed down. The TOP staff and singers gather quietly outside the main rehearsal room listening to the three women who are rehearsing the sublime Trio from Der Rosenkavalier. Not a few eyes have tears.
After ten days of intense work the results are obvious. Everyone is tired but energized. Now at the end of the day it is a pleasure to forget about posture and pronunciation, to forget about how to curtsey and “what are those words again?” – to forget all that and just listen. As the soaring music combines with the sight of the soaring mountains, the stress of the day evaporates and everyone is left calm and still.

And that, after all, is what Art it is all about.