October 21, 2019

Non-traditional student gets internship to produce opera in Germany

Lisa Johnson has quite the resume for a second semester Webster student.

Johnson is a non-traditional student. Johnson has a doctorate in musical arts, plays the clarinet and has performed on Broadway. Johnson moved to St. Louis a year ago and now pursues a Bachelor of Arts in German.

“I had had this experience already playing for this orchestra in Germany, I got very interested and learning more about the German language, but I had no language experience in German,” Johnson said, “So I came here specifically to develop my German.”

A few years ago, Johnson was asked to substitute a player for performance and she’s been going back for four years. This year, however, the composer of the opera asked Johnson for her help in producing the piece. The composer Carola Cribari wrote the piece on a piano and it was Johnson’s job to transcribe it into an orchestral piece.

Heidelberg is home to the oldest university in Germany. Students from all over the world come to study and perform in programs that date back centuries.

The opera, “Anima: Die Frauen und Rilke” (The women and Rilke) is about the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and his relationship with women. The performance was on March 10 at 11 a.m. which is the traditional time for matinee shows in Germany.  She spent the first half of the spring semester at the internship orchestrating the opera.

Heidelberg is thick with musical events and according to Johnson can be hard to get the front page of the local newspaper for orchestrating an opera. Johnson’s hard work scored a placed in the competitive music feature in the local newspaper.

When she moved from New York to St. Louis last year, she hoped to expand her experience by learning a new language.

Musical Experience

Johnson credited herself with a complicated yet diverse musical background. Orchestrating “Anima” she said was something that she had done since high school.

“I wanted to be active in music since I picked up the clarinet at age 13,” Johnson said, “I was just annoyingly focused from an extremely early age.”

While Johnson credits growing up in New York a big piece of her success as a musician, she says the music scene in St. Louis is much more personal as opposed to the chaos of Manhattan.

Growing up in New York exposed her to a lot of opportunities to expand her career in music education, she said. One example of this was her time on Broadway when she played the national tour of the musical, “A Chorus Line.”

In seventh grade, Johnson saw the show with her school. The show went on throughout her high school and years at conservatory. After her college years, the opportunity arose to perform music for the same show she saw as a seventh grader.

Johnson went on to fill her resume with various teaching and administrative roles in universities and conservatories in the New York area. According to her, one of the most notable positions she held was dean of the Mannes College of Music.

According to Johnson, the St. Louis music scene is easier to establish yourself due to less competition. St. Louis is also attractive because of the lower cost of living, Johnson said.

“What I’m seeing in St Louis is that quality things are happening,” Johnson said, “Sure [St. Louis] is on a smaller level but no matter what it all boils down to a person’s initiative.”

Why Webster

Johnson said her decision was influenced by the opportunity to continue her annual work in Germany while completing her studies at Webster.

Johnson thought she would have to take leave of absence for the first half of spring break. Instead, Paula Hanssen, coordinator of German studies, gave Johnson a way to work in Germany while pursuing her degree at Webster.

Typically, Hanssen said, student internships are a small part of their week.

Johnson said she helped orchestrate every day until the show from the moment she arrived in Germany this January.

Johnson said even being in Heidelberg for a few months gave her an idea of what it was like to live there and speak their language. The art of orchestration and the immersion into another language are made up of the same foundations and important to anyone studying music, Johnson said.

“Tell your music friends that they’ve got the skill already and they don’t even know it,” Johnson said, “Jump in. You’re never too old. I took my first German class at age 57.”

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