Ian Bostridge confronts a German heckler

Ian Bostridge confronts a German heckler


norman lebrecht

August 27, 2016

From a Slippedisc reader:

Friday 27 August recital by (British tenor) Ian Bostridge and (pianist) Julius Drake at the Schubertiade at Schwarzenberg where they perform regularly. First half unknown lieder with scores, second half better known without scores.

After applause, Die Forelle as encore, rather beautifully done. More applause. They return to do another encore when from the back a German voice shouts “bitte Deutsch lernen” (please learn German). Both look shocked.

Another encore (is) sung then Bostridge marches down the aisle and returns leading said German onto the platform suggesting he might like to address the audience. He says few words, is escorted off stage. Not the usual recital then.

Ian Bostridge, Julius Drake - Schubert

(c) Robert Avery, Habsburg Heritage Cultural Tours


UPDATE: Here’s what a German critic thought of the incident.


  • Stodd says:

    Wonderful this mentally is still alive in Germany. (No irony! “We know best”. I was happy to read this.

    • Olassus says:

      Yes. Good for Bostridge. I think his German is clear and properly delivered.

      It should be noted that this was (?) in Austria.

      • Dominique says:

        Yes, Schwarzenberg is in Vorarlberg, Austria’s most western state. And also one of the most conservative. Great reaction from Bostridge, chapeau.

    • Friederike says:

      It was in Austria though. If it really was in Vorarlberg, it is dead funny, because they are famous there for a barely understandable accent.

    • L. Strasser says:

      Das Problem ist, dass die feinen Damen und Herren ( die üblichen anwesenden Verdächtigen bei der Hochkultur) sich zu fein sind in solch einem Fall der Beleidigung , einfach mal den Beleidiger laut zu fragen, ob er den noch alle Latten am Zaun hängen habe. Ich kann nur sagen, man bricht sich keinen Zacken aus der Krone und es befreit ungemein. Und man irrt nicht noch Stunden mit Autoaggressionen durch die Landschaft, weil man sich zu fein war adäquat zu reagieren. Meine eigene Erfahrung.

  • Melisande says:

    Interesting to know the nationality of this uncivilized person. Should have been removed from the hall immediately. Bostridge’s pronunciation and diction of the German language are impeccable as is his understanding of the texts.
    To me the last paragraph of the account is not clear.

    • Stefan Treddel says:

      Bostridge has a quite heavy english accent in his german singing! Impeccable it is not. But I never have a problem understanding what he is singing and he makes emotions and content perfectly clear. Was the heckler maybe refering to introductions to encores in english?

      • Colenton Freeman says:

        If he announced his encores in english, then I can understand the frustration of the german public. He has been around long enough to be able to do that. Only, audience members here usually are not so rude.

      • Patrick Bahners says:

        No. There was no introduction.

      • Olassus says:

        There is no “impeccable.” Ever compared the accents of (educated) people from different parts of Germany?

        Hoch Deutsch (accent not grammar) exists only by a certain pine tree on a straight line from Kassel to Hannover.

        • Alexander Hall says:

          It is actually “Hochdeutsch”, not “Hoch Deutsch”. Why the disparagement? If you want to get anywhere as an actor or newsreader in the German media, you have to speak “Hochdeutsch”, unlike the BBC which nowadays favours regional accents as broad as they get (Steph McGovern is an obvious example).

        • Jaybuyer says:

          An interesting theory. Can you please name one German or Austrian singer who sings Schubert or Wagner with their regional accent? Or a British singer who sings Purcell or Britten with their regional accent?

        • Jaybuyer says:

          Doesn’t answer my question, Olassus. Strauss’s librettist makes fun of Baron Ochs by giving him a boorish ‘uneducated’ accent. Would a Welsh singer use a Welsh accent when singing this role in Rosenkavalier?

          • Olassus says:

            Ochs is landed nobility. His behavior is boorish, not his accent, which may logically be expected to be regional.

          • Jaybuyer says:

            Thank you, Tore Tom. I have just treated myself to 2 minutes of Julius Patzak’s Winterreise. Excruciating! Sounds like a Viennese Kabarettist. I only know him from the Ferrier Das Lied and was always amazed how he got through the first song with such good high notes. Not so nasal, if memory serves me correct. Olaf Bär sounds wonderful. No barrier between singer and listener; a native German speaker singing German. That’ll do for me!

          • Tore Tom says:

            I only mentioned this because of the use of language, without wanting to say something about the singing (since the discussion going on here is about languages). In this time it was very ‘new’ to dare to sing it like that, in a very viennese way. Sliding the notes, sometimes almost speaking rhythm etc.
            He tries to do it like it might have sounded when Schubert sang it. The way the ‘Wiener’ still are talking in their slang… Though it is also not my preferred recording, I learned a lot from it.
            Maybe try to see it from this perspective?

        • Patrick Power says:

          Buehnendeutsch is ,as with Diction Lyrique in French and similar “lyric” dictions, not spoken anywhere but on the stage or in readings of a “high cultured” text. It exists for projection and clarity. Interestingly, the modifications of consonant usage etc are from language to language..the guttural ,velar [R] is not used in French,German,or Russian lyric diction as it interferes with flow of resonance from vowel to vowel.

          • Jaybuyer says:

            I presume with Bühnendeutsch you are referring to singing. Pappano did a television series on ‘the voice’ where singers said certain vowels/diphthongs were impossible to sing with a wide open whatever, particularly French ‘u’ and German ‘ü’, so they approximate with a kind of ‘i’. But these are all tricks of the trade and don’t detract from the point that it is difficult for ‘foreigners’ (forgive the shorthand) to sound like natives. Whether this is desirable or necessary is, of course, another point. Some commenters on the FAZ article support Bostridge’s approach to Lieder singing 100%, witness the fact that he has been invited back to this festival year after year.

      • Peggy Czyzak-Dannenbaum says:

        the reply was in German. Bostridge’s diction is perfect but he sometimes makes grammatical errors (dative instead of accusative ending for example). it can be annoying to someone who speaks perfect German but he more than makes up for it with his exquisite interpretation and beautiful voice. the audience was with Bestride. I think it is also pretty clear (I was there) that the gentleman who objected to Bostridge’s German was mentally unstable.

        • Jaybuyer says:

          I find it amazing that someone who is known to cause trouble at such a music festival hasn’t been banned long ago.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    I hope he pulled the right person out of the audience.

    Stage lights… darkened hall… all that.


    • Patrick Bahners says:

      The lights were on when the heckler made his comment. Everybody saw him. An elderly, white-haired man. He was standing in the aisle.

  • James Jolly says:

    Please consider just how many English speakers perform opera in Germany, and then contrast this with the improbability of any German speaker ever singing a lead role on Broadway.

    • Samuel Thiel says:

      I have worked in the musical business in Germany for a long time. The problem you refer to here has its roots in the belief that no one can really excel at all three disciplines required on the musical stage, singing, dancing and acting. There are very few training programs in Germany that provide a real amalgamation of these capacities. Another point, German speaking actors have a long history of success in the USA. Maximillian Schell, Marlene Dietrich…no one complained about their accents – they were regarded more as “charming”. If you have even a slight accent in German as an Anglophone there is almost no hope of working as an actor because (I have heard this!) you have a disgusting accent. Dies alles von einem Amerikaner, der seit über 40 Jahren in Deutschland lebt, die Sprache beherrscht, aber immer noch als Ausländer gesehen wird.

      • karolboski says:

        Once upon a time, back in my teenage years, I spent a few weeks in Bavaria. By the end of those weeks, I had learned to smile like a Bavarian, which made my American accent basically disappear. I still had slight problems with the letter R, so if you knew I was American, you’d know why I had those problems. But if you didn’t… let’s say no one knew. But… to this day I still have a pretty thick Bavarian accent when I speak German. I’m not sure in what measure it carries over to my singing (I used to have a Baroque ensemble where we performed, among other things, a lot of material from Bach cantatas).

    • Bruys says:

      I’m no expert, but Ute Lemper immediately comes to mind. She performs in American musicals, and you can’t quibble about her English.

    • brian kealy says:

      Marlene Dietrich, Ute Lempe, Lotte Lenya

      • Novagerio says:

        Did any American ever complain about Peter Lorre’s accent? Or the accents of 3/4 of Hollywood who left the old world due to Hitler?….Those austrians those austrians…

        • Jaybuyer says:

          Think of Ingrid Bergman’s voice/accent. Spellbinding! (I need to lie down.)

          • Sue says:

            LOL!! Sadly, the fate of many German and Austrian actors from the 30’s onwards was that they mainly got to play Nazis!! With friends like that who needs enemies??

          • Pianofortissimo says:

            Ingrid Bergman was Swede, not German. Her accent melted quite well in the miriad of variants in American English.

  • GG says:

    How rude to heckle. True though. Bostridge Schubert is not necessarily tolerable if one loves the German language. But he gives a good Quint.

  • Jane Susanna ENNIS says:

    Bostridge’s German isn’t at all bad, considering he isn’t a native speaker.

  • David Osborne says:

    My question would be to what the heckler was referring. Obviously he’s singing in German. Speaking, introductions? As an English speaker living in Germany I’m painfully aware that my German is not good. I never stop apologising for it but it is one hell of a tricky language. Despite this I have never experienced anything but an understanding and courteous response from people in all walks of life. This sort of appalling rudeness does appear to be unique to the concert hall. Tells you something doesn’t it… Ian Bostridge by the way- Magnificent!

  • Beaumont says:

    What I don’t get is if the guy doesn’t like Bostridge’s way of singing, why did he buy a ticket, and if he only found out during the recital that this wasn’t his cup of tea, why did he stay?
    BTW: you would have to pay me to attend one of Bostridge’s concerts, just like I cannot stand Vogt – great news for all their fans, one ticket less they have to fight over.
    If I don’t like something I simply don’t buy it, don’t listen to it, don’t eat it, etc etc Some people seem to go to concerts just to complain about them afterwards.

    • Jaybuyer says:

      Re Vogt – and I thought it was just me! His recent Parsifal received so much praise (I suspect because he looks like a ‘Wagner hero’)

  • Marianne says:

    Whether or not Ian Bostridge’s German is good or not, is really beside the point. Shouting out the way the person in the audience did is totally unacceptable.

    The report above however is somewhat enigmatic. What exactly does the writer mean in the last paragraph?

  • Tim Kendal says:

    I’m sure Bostridge is a very courageous guy to have confronted the heckler. He’s also courageous to be singing this (or indeed any) repertoire. His continued success is a mystery to me.

    Far from being unacceptable, it as about time someone had the courage to speak (or shout out) the truth. The paying public deserve to be heard – and not permit any artist whom they find below par – to continue in revered silence.

    • David Osborne says:

      Not to mention the bleeding obvious that the vast majority of the audience (with apparently just the one exception) appeared to be enjoying the concert, given there were in fact encores. How absolutely inconsiderate of this utterly selfish and self indulgent individual.

      • Tim Kendal says:

        They cheer Bocelli. He also sings encores. If I was there, I’d boo. Even on my own.

      • Soprano says:

        A typical case of “The emperor’s new clothes”?

      • David says:

        Apparently the heckler is known to suffer from mental problems. He had booed loudly the previous evening. He turned up for Gerald Finlay’s concert but was escorted from the premises.
        The majority of the locals in the audience were shocked by what happened and they gave the heckler a robust reception once Ian Bostridge had frog marched him onto the stage.

        • Theodore McGuiver says:

          Haven’t we had enough of people ‘suffering from mental problems’ in Europe recently? At least this particular version was pretty harmless…

  • David Osborne says:

    Look, I really don’t know what to say, there seem to be those who just love to demonstrate this kind of ‘look at me’ affectatious superiority by criticising someone who has attained great success with a particular repertoire as Ian Bostridge has with this one- He is a superb artist who ‘inhabits’ and expresses the meaning of the songs wonderfully well, whether or not there are flaws in his German.

    Let me therefore give a different example. Have a listen to Kirsten Flagstad singing ‘When I am Laid in Earth’. (It’s not hard to find). Her English is by no means perfect but the performance is so spine-tinglingly good that it just doesn’t matter. The thought that anyone would actually be offended by certain pronunciations is absurd.

    • Tim Kendal says:

      Actually, you make the point that I have been trying to get across. For me it’s not the pronunciation. This singer’s instrument is, to my ear, not acceptable. So, it wouldn’t matter to me if he was mis-pronouncing Norwegian or Hebrew, the underlying voice is, to my ears, just out of kilter with the acclaim which he has received.

  • john humphreys says:

    Perhap the guy thought Ian was singing ‘I’m forelle blowing bubbles’?

  • Madeleine B says:

    I have seen several “live theatre” moments at Schwarzenberg. The audience can be very vocal – and they target native German-speakers too….
    Last year at the masterclasses, if a singer got a word wrong, the audience chorused the correct one. If a singer sang a wrong note, there were several whistled contributions of the correct one.

    The live theatre comes from the concert platform too. Last year Schiff stopped in the middle of a movement to furiously castigate his page-turner. It’s not just the audience who don’t know how to behave.

    • LT says:

      Wow I don’t see this kind of action in the staider recital halls I frequent! Schwarzenberg Festival sounds rather fun & characterful

  • Tim Kendal says:

    Here are two versions. One is truly excellent, the other is sung by Mr Bostridge. Whilst comparisons are (or at least can be) odious, Mr Bostridge’s version does not withstand scrutiny on its own terms.



    • Jaybuyer says:

      À chacun son goût! They both sound like foreigners singing German to me. Ian Bostridge’s podium style is hard to take anyway. Where does Pons originally come from? I can only find out that he has dual nationality, including German. Isn’t Lieder singing tough, though?

      • Tim Kendal says:

        Mr Pons is German/Mexican. But the difference between the two gentlemen are far more profound than pronunciation. There is firstly the technique, then the timbre, the quality of the voice and sound, the interpretation, the meaning invested in the words, the phrasing, and so on. But Mr Pons’ instrument is in a different (and superior) universe from the other singer’s. He therefore is lightyears ahead as he then brings his artistry to work on the piece. Of course, this is only to my ears. What do I know?

        • David Osborne says:

          Thanks for the comparison, an interesting exercise. Two very different recordings (neither of any great quality- the recordings not the performances). You could not possibly make a judgement on timbre based on these. Bostridge sounds very light here but he does have a living legend as an accompanist. My verdict? (just opinion, mind)… Give me Die Schöne Müllerin by a baritone any day. Olaf Bär perhaps or of course DF-D.

          • David Osborne says:

            Olaf Bär- A studio recording of course…

          • Jaybuyer says:

            I can listen to DFD at any time (even his more ‘mannered’ late period) and be utterly convinced. Lieder singing is like story telling. If Goethe, Heine, etc. is telling me a story, I would rather a native speaker tells/sings it. Christian Gerhaher and the young Benjamin Appl don’t make me squirm, either.

  • Brian says:

    What’s interesting to me is that booing or heckling is part of a tradition of audience feedback in opera houses, but in the recital hall, people are usually well behaved. Bostridge is mostly a recital singer but I wonder if he’s ever experienced a similar reaction at one of Berlin or Munich’s opera houses, and if anyone noticed? (I’m sure his German is excellent, at any rate.)

  • Ray says:

    It is a clear example of lack of class. So what if someone has an accent? Are German singers going to stop singing in Italian, French and other languages?
    I have been cautioned about this, though I don’t sing any German operas, but to not audition with a German aria in Germany!!
    They should be glad when foreign singers chose their music.

    • Soprano says:

      Singing in German is different from speaking, as it is in any other language. There are experts coaches who teach singers the proper way to sing in German. I am sure Bostridge can afford taking some lessons and I don’t see why he would be above doing his homework, like all singers are expected to. The advice of not bringing a German aria to an audition in Germany is a stupid one, since it will be expected and every opera house in Germany performs German opera.”They should be glad when foreign singers chose their music”?? As if they don’t have fabulous singers in Germany itself… A singer should be glad to have the honor of performing these works of art and should do so in the proper way, or leave it up to others who do. I myself am from a country virtually no foreigner speaks the language of and I am proud to say that I have had compliments about my singing in German, Italian, French, English, Hungarian and even in Slovak. Not getting sufficient coaching is plain arrogance in my book! I applaud the audience member for speaking up for once, instead of accepting sloppy work.

      • Una says:

        So why are you hiding behind an anonymous name of ‘soprano’, praising yourself in multiple languages, and yet pulling another and one of your fellow singers to bits? Seems a bit strange to me! How do you know Ian doesn’t have coaching?

        • Soprano says:

          How is calling myself soprano more anonymous than “Una” and why would one’s name be relevant anyway? I’m not praising myself, nor am I pulling a fellow singer to bits when I say that it is totally normal and should be expected of all singers to study their languages.I am merely pointing out that your native language can never be an excuse for singing with a huge accent. If Ian has a German coach, the coach should be more strict or be fired. As a coach of professionals I would also expect nothing more than perfect pronunciation in every language they chose to sing, whether they are called Bostridge or not.

          • Stephen says:

            “Soprano” sounds a bit of a prig to me. Hats off to the person who can sing perfectly in five foreign languages. Two hats on to the person who thinks she is superior to all other lesser individuals.

  • Mark says:

    Well, Bostridge is one of the most-overrated singers in history. People are taken in by his erudition, but singing is singing, and all the smarts in the world aren’t going to excuse a mediocre voice and a suspect technique.

    That said, if takes guts to get up in front of an audience to perform, doubly so if you are performing in a foreign land and singung in their language. Most audiences accept this fact of classical music life and allow for imperfections. That’s just good manners.

    So, I’ll cut Bostridge some slack on this, assuming that after the shock wears off, he might consider that there was a hint of truth to the criticism and take steps to improve his delivery of German text.

  • Mark says:

    Funny how the meme in classical music these days are that musicians need to engage with their audience in new ways that resemble the less-structured events of the pop world, yet as soon as an audience member takes us up on the offer they’re called rude.

    • David Osborne says:

      An interesting point. However, the reason this individual is being accused of rudeness is not because he’s engaging. It’s because he’s being rude… To the performers and showing a complete lack of consideration for the other audience members. The issue is perhaps less about the need for audiences to engage with performers, but for performers to take steps to listen to their audiences. How about (I’ve done this, it works) leaving the dressing room at interval to go and mingle with audience, hear what they have to say that way? Perhaps our heckler was frustrated having no other forum in which to express his view, but we don’t really want to return to the days of the Paris Tannhäuser do we?

  • Andrew Laughlin says:

    The audience member in question is apparently a known trouble-maker and rather nasty piece of work. He had nothing to say when Bostridge gave him the podium: a standard bully/coward. Gerard Finlay thanked the audience this evening and said (in perfect German) how happy/lucky he and Julius Drake were to be back in Austria to improve their German. I enjoy Bostridge’s style of performance and know how idiosyncratic/unique it is. I also know it is not to everyone’s taste, which doesn’t make it bad nor wrong. If you don’t like it, don’t go! The heckle was OTT rude and unnecessary. Bostridge’s reaction was pure class!

    • Jaybuyer says:

      Well put, Andrew. Why are we giving this nutcase so much publicity?

    • Max says:

      Interesting case of extreme rudeness from one of these my-statements-and-thoughts-are-so-far-above-99-per-cent-of-the-population-that-I-am-widely-entitled-to-reprimand-anybody-anywhere-anyhow-and-anytime-(in fact I should be thanked for it) type of person 🙂

  • Fosco says:

    Can someone of the eye (and ear) witnesses please inform us if there was any reason for that comment “Bitte Deutsch lernen”?
    Did Mr Bostridge in fact make a mistake or delivered a poor prononciation?
    Or was that heckler only impolite and rude?
    Or did he have a point?

  • jaxon says:

    Very sad that in this industry, a post detailing a nonsense argument about a singer’s German accent can draw 70+ comments. I’m glad we’re all focused on the right things.

    • Fosco says:

      Isn’t that what this Blog is about? Classic nerds detailing things? By the way, the underlying implication of the scenario is the answer: is that a typical German reaction?
      I was told that Fischer-Dieskau once Had a heckler at a recital in Carnegie Hall. So this guy yells during the music when dfd would eventually start singing.

  • hadrianus says:

    Bostridge’s German is far from being perfect, but he is not the only “foreign” Lieder singer with this problem. As far as his voice is concerned, there I have more problems, but this is just a personal opinion. But what about all these hundreds of opera singers who, while singing Italian repertoire, double all single consonants or make them sound single when they are double?? Or they mix up open with closed vowels? Simply horrible. Most of them (including famous stars) have the absurd conception that to emphasize some works dramatically, consonants should be doubled! Singing Maestros, who care about pronounciation are all gone, unfortunately, and too many modern teachers only care about technique. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle used to engage me as an Italian and French language coach in his Mozart productions; but with some established singers, it was hopeless to have them correct old bad habits… But some few exceptions are still grateful today for my perfectionist’s work. Now, there is no money around anymore for such luxury jobs, and it is sad that Opera houses’ piano coaches have often no perfect forgeign language knowledges…

    • Alexander Hall says:

      It is also sad when big egos intervene to prevent opera singers from perfecting their art in a language they didn’t grow up with. One of the reasons why Simone Young at the Hamburg Opera created a wall of resentment amongst the orchestra and backstage staff was because she fired a German language-coach who had dared to correct wrong German being sung by one of her close associates. He was then replaced with a non-native coach who – not surprisingly – had far less competence in the linguistic area.

  • Kristof says:

    Bostridge’s German is not idiomatic. His wavering, somewhat hysterical renditions don’t bear comparison with those of Schreier, Güra, Goerne or Gerharer. Were it not for the heavy promotion by the British media he would not have enjoyed the career he has.