For two or three generations of singers before my time, German was actually much more important to American singers than it is today, as many of them went to Germany to seek a living. Every town in Germany has an opera house, and American singers were very much in demand in the 1970s and 1980s, because American singers are rightly considered to be the best in the world: our training focuses on developing rock-solid vocal technique, and we are discouraged from specializing, so we learn to sing all the major national styles and in all languages, with the result that your average American opera singer can sing pretty much anything well. So Americans would go over to Germany (West Germany at that time) in search of fest employment, which meant they were attached to a specific opera house. It was not glamorous work; the house tenor or lyric soprano had to sing every role in his or her fach, or voice category, in every opera that the house had in its repertory, which is quite different from the American system, in which all the singers are guest artists, coming to Opera House X to perform a particular role and then going elsewhere. The Americans in Germany were excellent journeymen singers, and performing several shows a week for years on end was hard work, and everything -- Le Nozze di Figaro, La Traviata, Porgy and Bess -- was performed in German translation. But in Germany, American singers were employees of the state, with full benefits. They would never be famous, but they had health insurance and job security (something American singers still don't have), and they were able to make a living doing what their education and years of training had prepared them to do. Many American singers stayed in Germany for years, marrying other American singers and raising their children there.
In the 1990s, all of this began to change. After the Berlin Wall fell, the German opera market was flooded with a new crop of Eastern Bloc singers who were eager to work, would work for less money than Americans, and could still sing better than Germans. And American presenters, flush with cash left over from the brief period in American history during which arts funding was a national priority, founded new regional opera companies and young artists' training programs for native-born American talent, so singers seemingly had more opportunities at home. And, after a fallow generation or two, Germany started producing a few world-class singers of its own. I knew a couple of singers who went on audition tours in Germany ten or so years ago, but the German door was closing fast, and then 9/11 changed the face of opera in America, as it did so many other things.
I was not planning to go to Germany. I simply set about learning German so that I could sing German music as well and truthfully as possible. Plenty of American singers sing German music without really knowing German, but I don't believe that you can ever do justice to a song unless you understand the literal meaning of every word, above and beyond having a notion about the meaning of the whole piece. If you know the meaning of every word, you can start to develop ideas about why the composer set each word as he did, and once you have an understanding of this -- a subjective one, to be sure -- you are no longer singing a melody; you participate in the harmonic progression of the piece itself. You're able to understand the aural landscape of a piece in a whole new way, a way that is text-oriented, and you can use your voice as an ensemble instrument to bring out the meanings implied by certain keys and chords. You become a collaborative musician, which seems only right in a repertoire -- German Lieder -- in which the voice and piano are given equal prominence. Since I loved German music so much, I felt it would be almost unethical to attempt to sing it without knowing the language.
As it happens, though, I've spent most of my career performing Italian and English music. I've been told, too, that those are the repertoires in which I sound the best, which is not surprising, as I believe that everyone sings best in his own native tongue. As my old voice teacher, one of those intrepid American singers in Germany who attached himself to the Opernhaus at Augsburg in the 1980s, told me, an American singer can't have a career singing Lieder; you have to sing opera, get yourself known, and then acquire the clout to perform the music you want to sing (with the unspoken assumption that you would be paid to do this and that people would come to hear it). This was my plan for a time, and I worked most assiduously at it, but for complicated reasons I ended up dropping out and focusing on several obscure repertoires instead.
I don't know if there's any place for German Lieder in America today. I think there's a great need for it, both aesthetically and spiritually, but I don't know where concerts of German art songs would fit into the current American social landscape. Lieder are heard in the great concert halls of major urban areas, and also on college campuses, when famous opera singers come around on tour to give art song recitals. The asethetic of the song recital is much more rarified and much less accessible than that of opera, simply because it's much less familiar. And yet, in my opinion, it is so much more moving, so much more healing, so much more able to go deep into the core of what makes us human. It would be a good thing, I think, for everyone to hear some Brahms and Schubert on a regular basis.
I always told my voice students that the most important thing they could do was to learn German. I'm sure they thought that was extremely arbitrary, but I felt very gratified when my former student S. recently started writing her Facebook posts in rather good German, and said that she wanted to marry Brahms.
Here is some more Hans Hotter; I'm discovering all over again what a fantastic singer he was.
The poem, by Karl Friedrich Lappe (1773-1843):
O how beautiful is your world, Father, when she shines with golden beams! When your gaze descends And paints the dust with a shimmering glowing, When the red, which flashes in the clouds, Sinks into my quiet window! How could I complain, how could I be afraid? How could anything ever be amiss between you and me? No, I will carry in my breast Your Heaven for all times. And this heart, before it breaks down, Shall drink in the glow and the light.