Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Stephens invites you to “Schau in die Welt”

Author:  | Saturday, August 25th, 2018 | 

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Sarah Stephens shares how a year in Freiburg led to a lifetime of experiences in Germany and beyond

Leading the German consul-general David Gill through an afternoon of opera in New York City is reality for Sarah Stephens now, but an experience she could not have dreamed of when she embarked on a study abroad program through IES to Freiburg in 1976. While she wanted to spend her junior year abroad, her initial choice to study German had been driven simply by a desire to be different than her older sisters, who had taken French and Spanish. A serendipitous decision stemming from sibling rivalry was to change her life, and her view of the world, forever.

Stephens fell quickly and deeply in love with Freiburg, and with life in Europe in general. She was drawn in by the culture, the beautiful landscape, and the ability to travel so quickly. She still speaks lovingly about walking the streets of the city at night, wandering to the Münster or along the Bächle, snacking on Wurst in the Münsterplatz, and participating in life in the city. “Ever since then I’ve wanted a life that is [part of] a community—I love it when there’s life on the streets and that’s part of the reason I live in New York City.”

She is also quick to stress how important learning the German language became to her once she was in Freiburg as a tool to truly understand the people and the culture that were swirling around her. “I was blessed to have a very, very good teacher, and I studied hard.” As an exchange student, she noted that it was sometimes difficult to remain committed to immersive language learning, whether because her IES classmates were slipping back into English at social gatherings, or because she encountered helpful Germans trying to ease her way by switching to English, but she persisted, even through the occasional lonely days. She committed to memorizing the complicated grammar and politely indicating her desire to speak German, not English, in social settings in order to truly gain an understanding of the years of history and culture around her—an understanding that plays an important role in her work today. “I never would have dreamed in a thousand years that I would be doing this back in then, but I know the understanding that I worked hard to gain of Germany has served me well personally and professionally.”

Stephens’ time abroad made such an impression that she pursued her career in Germany, founding International Artists Management in Bremen in 1996, and was granted her Künstleragentur license in Germany in 2000, and for the European Union and internationally in 2001. She moved to New York ten years ago to expand her work, and today she helps place emerging singers, stage directors and conductors at mid-level opera houses throughout Germany. She notes that while she operates in both the United States and Germany, more often she places talent in German opera houses because public funding of the opera house means there are more job opportunities there than in the United States. Her artists have performed in theaters throughout Europe including the Staatsoper in Berlin, Covent Garden in London, Opéra Bastille in Paris, Stockholm, Basel, Zürich, Graz, Bayreuth Festival, Semperoper in Dresden, Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Bayerische Staatsoper in München, Mannheim, Leipzig, Bremen, Oldenburg, Kiel, Darmstadt, Augsburg, Nürnberg and Münster.

Her most recent project takes her away from the stage and behind the camera. Stephens has stressed that the project is in the preliminary stages but mentioned that she is currently working on creating and producing a television series centered around the themes of racial and social justice that emerge around a (fictional) case of an extra-judicial police shooting (although a character based at the opera in Berlin will make an appearance). In crafting her tale and the music with an operatic story-telling line to accompany it, which will describe the collision of three multi-racial Midwestern families, Stephens emphasizes her desire that the story and the characters be “authentic.” During the process of developing the story, she interviewed a former chief of police, who was involved in the aftermath of a shooting of an African-American man. Afterwards, he thanked her for letting him tell his story. Stephens attributes her passion for finding understanding and digging deeper into people’s stories to her time in Germany as a student.

“Having those years in Germany heightened my cultural awareness and helped me slash stereotypes and clichés and in the end it helped me realize the humanness of it all.  I think when I first went to Germany, it was only twenty or thirty years out [from the Second World War], and I did walk around wondering what role the people on the street had played. And then I started learning people’s stories as soon as I learned the language and I learned the many sides to it… I learned [to hear people’s stories] in Germany, and it has really enriched my life.”

Years later when she was a graduate student of German Literature at the University of Minnesota, she spent a semester (in 1984) teaching at the Humboldt Universität in East Berlin. Yes, in the DDR! “I was curious about the other Germany. Once I got there, I realized, in order to really get to know the people of the GDR, I needed to travel outside of the university where most everyone was a member of the party and recited the party line. That was limiting and boring after a while. It was in the hinterlands that I got to know Land and Leute.”

Her commitment to seeing a story from many sides, and to searching for authentic understanding, is evidenced in her motto, which she shared at the 2017 Freiburg Alumni Reunion weekend. “There’s that lovely spot in Freiburg, Schauinsland, where you can take the cable car up and ‘see into the land’ all the way to the Alps… my motto would be ‘Schau in die Welt’ — that’s what I learned to do in Freiburg. In that charming, wonderful little bubble I learned to see the world.”

Stephens’ penchant for experiencing differing Weltanschauung, or perspectives of the world, which she learned in Freiburg, has also driven her continued connection with the University through the alumni chapter in New York and beyond. “It’s wonderful to be connected with people who have an understanding of what it’s like to be on both continents and that’s hard to find in the U.S., and easier to find in Europe… I appreciate being with other Germans or other Americans who have a different Weltanschauung. The experiences are incredibly rich, and we can have different conversations about politics and history and cultural differences… And I like the people.” It’s clear that the Uni-Freiburg means a great deal to Stephens, both from her past experiences and her present actions. In April she graciously welcomed her fellow alumni into her home in New York and provided an introduction to Verdi’s opera “Luisa Miller” (based on Schiller’s “Kabale und Liebe”) before the group viewed the performance at the Met as part of Alumni Freiburg’s Day at the Opera. Rumor has it that another such event is in the works for the fall, and you can be sure that the day will offer many more chances to take Sarah Stephens’ advice and engage in stimulating conversations that will broaden your Weltanschauung.

A Quick Q&A:

Q: What would be your advice for people who are interested in becoming more familiar with opera, but have no idea where to start?

A: “First of all, I do frequent opera introductions. Come to one? Opera has this hurdle that makes it hard. It’s different than a theatre or a movie where you can go in knowing nothing and still get something out of it; that’s not the case with opera. I would recommend having some sort of introduction. I have a friend in NYC who does monthly interviews with well-known opera singers and has written an introduction book called Opéra 101.Find a way to learn a bit more about the art that will help you overcome the hurdle. Otherwise, be sure to read through a synopsis beforehand if you go to the opera… and just listen to the music, it’s just so compelling and overwhelming—if you are a music lover, it’s really all about the music and the story that is told through the music, in the music, by the music, it’s all about the music.”

Q: Your company operates out of both Berlin and New York. What are some of the similarities or differences you notice across the transatlantic divide?

A: “Germans are a lot more straightforward and serious. I appreciate that. They’re very easy to deal with because you know where you stand—and where we can negotiate.”

Q: What advice do you have for current students at the University of Freiburg?

A:“I’m a big fan of [the late] Anthony Bourdain, and as he would have said: be curious, go out into the world, into the smaller nooks and crannies, into local restaurants, eat local food, talk to people, ask questions open your eyes, seize the opportunity to walk the streets and get on a bus or train. Open your mind to a new world. And [if you’re American] learn the language—make sure you get out and say, ‘Ich möchte gerne Deutsch sprechen.’”

Sarah Stephens founded International Artists Management in Bremen, Germany in 1996. Her agency specialized in professional personal management and bilingual promotion for international opera singers in Europe and later expanded to include management for conductors, stage directors and other classical musicians, and her artists have performed in theaters throughout Europe. Ms. Stephens was granted the German agency license in 2000 authorizing her to operate as a recognized artists management agency (Künstleragentur) in Germany. A second license was issued the same year entitling her agency to engage in business internationally and throughout the European Union.

 In 2008, she returned to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis to complete her Master’s degree with a bilingual thesis on Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Subsequently, she came to New York City and founded Stephens Nicolson Artists Management with Mark Nicolson. Sarah Stephens studied in German and has spent most of her life since (25 years). She lived in Freiburg, Hamburg, Berlin, and in 1991 moved to Bremen where she lived until 2008. Ms. Stephens attended the University of Vermont, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Germany), and the University of Minnesota. Born and raised in Minneapolis, she returns there often to be with her family and friends on the beautiful Minnesota lakes.

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