When everyone speaks the same language

Photos: Jan Voth, Sascha Kreklau, Arne Weychardt

For Liz Mohn, music consoles, educates, unites and thrills. And since the language of music has played a significant role in her own life, she wants to use it to help make a difference in today’s world.


smile plays across Liz Mohn’s face. When the girls and boys at an elementary school near Gütersloh, Germany, have finished singing, she claps in appreciation and then joins them. She listens to what they have to say – about the music they make, the fun they have while performing and the songs some of them sing at home with their parents. Just as she once did. “I was the second youngest of five children and watched as my mother raised us mostly on her own during those difficult wartime years,” the vice-chairwoman of the Bertelsmann Stiftung Executive Board says. “She often sang to herself while she was cooking, sewing and cleaning. Thanks to her I learned countless songs – folksongs, religious songs.”

Inspiring young people

Mohn’s enthusiasm for music persisted. Above all, she sang often and gladly as a Girl Scout. “What children really like is being part of a group,” she says. “When they sing together they develop a sense of belonging. They also learn tolerance and how to listen – important qualities if the world is to be a more peaceful, humane place. Youngsters discover their creativity through music. They also get better grades, especially in the natural sciences. And they are sick less often.”

Her own experiences with music are undoubtedly one of the many reasons why she first became involved in music education programs years ago. Musical Primary School is just one of the numerous projects that she initiated and has spent years enthusiastically supporting. The project is designed to introduce music into all subjects taught at school and to employ it as often as possible. Since 2005, more than 200,000 children in Germany have learned how to read, write and do arithmetic at Musical Primary Schools. For Mohn, this is proof that music plays a very special role. “When you learn music you also learn values,” she explains. “Musical Primary Schools are particularly good at giving children the chance to participate and at providing educational opportunities for all.”

The Liz Mohn Foundation for Culture and Music was also founded in 2005 – another institution she feels very strongly about and one that also introduces young people to music. The foundation is currently supporting the International Opera Studio at the Berlin State Opera and a musical theater program for preschoolers. It also organizes the Musical Summer Camp, which allows young people between the ages of 15 and 19 to spend a week experiencing music, dance and acting. Cultural Diversity and Music is an “ideas initiative” launched by the foundation. It supports a number of projects that help children and adolescents of different backgrounds to come together and get to know each other.

Liz Mohn and Francisco Araíza with Marina Rebeka, who was awarded first prize at  “Neue Stimmen” 2007.

Music brings people together

There’s never been a time when music was not a part of Mohn’s life. “I liked to sing with friends as a young girl,” she recalls. “And even as a grown woman, I still love everything from pop tunes to classical arias. I was also able to share my passion for music with my husband, who had a lovely voice.” She and her late spouse, the publisher Reinhard Mohn, recognized years ago that music is like a common language, one that everybody understands and that creates a connection between people. “When I’m traveling I’ve repeatedly seen the power music has to connect people across national, ethnic and linguistic borders,” Mohn says. “For me, music has always had a unique power to inspire and console, one that has never failed me in times of difficulty”(Liz Mohn). What could make more sense, then, to see a connection between music and globalization – as something that can promote international understanding? “Singing brings people together. Even if we don’t understand the lyrics we can hum along or allow ourselves to be touched emotionally. Music is the most beautiful language. It’s understood everywhere,” she explains. “Music simply must be included in the education children receive. Where else except in preschools and schools do young people have such an outstanding opportunity to experience music’s power to connect? Where else can it help them experience values such as community and tolerance, discipline and listening? Including music in all areas of school life is not only a modern teaching method, it’s a prerequisite for helping the schools themselves develop further!”

In light of the increasing number of refugees arriving in Europe and the resulting challenges, Mohn even goes one step further. “The many people who are looking to us for protection and help have experienced dreadful things in their home countries and on their way here, things they have had to overcome and must now deal with,” she says. “What they want is to be let in, somewhere where they are again safe and can have a normal, everyday life. What would make more sense than using music – when children begin attending a new school in Germany, for example? That would give them a feeling of community even before they speak their first word of the local language.” Using music to greet and integrate refugee children is one of Mohn’s latest goals. “Music brings joy to a world that, especially these days, is not always a carefree place,” she explains.

“Neue Stimmen” – a personal matter

Inspired by a conversation with Herbert von Karajan (center), Liz and Reinhard Mohn developed a plan to promote talented young singers.

Music can indeed transcend borders and anyone who has experienced Liz Mohn at the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s “Neue Stimmen” International Singing Competition, Mohn’s biggest music project, has clearly seen what music means to her. They have also seen her talent for getting people to come together and share her enthusiasm. The numbers speak for themselves: More than 10,000 young singers from over 70 countries have applied to participate in the competition since it began in 1987. And almost 900 young artists have been selected during the worldwide auditions to compete in the finals in Gütersloh. More than 100 prizes have been awarded. In other words, it’s a competition of the highest order – one that continues to play a part in the participants’ lives long after the competition itself has ended. Every two years, once the prizewinners have been chosen, Mohn celebrates together with the finalists, the jury members and other well-known professionals from the international opera scene. Within that small circle, people sing together and get to know each other. They also begin building networks that can pave the way for the young artists’ careers and make it easier for them to decide what comes next.

Before then, however, Mohn has been known to sneak unannounced into rehearsals for the competition, just to listen and enjoy the music. But also because, each time the event is held, she is excited for the contestants and wants to find out more about them. “When we launched ‘Neue Stimmen’ almost 30 years ago, the world was much different,” she recalls. “Back then my husband and I had invited Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic to perform at a concert given in Gütersloh’s municipal theater to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Bertelsmann’s founding. During a conversation afterwards, the maestro expressed his concern about how difficult it was to find new opera talent. The next generation was being groomed in every area imaginable, he said, but not in the world of opera.” That was the moment Liz Mohn began dedicating herself to closing the gap. “I spoke to my husband and immediately sensed he was just as excited about the idea as I was,” she recalls.

It was the start of a lifelong mission, one that could only be accomplished together with a network of world-class partners. A jury of recognized individuals from the world of opera was convened, one that has included renowned performers, critics and stage directors such as Elisabeth Legge-Schwarzkopf, Hans Pischner, James Wagner, Josef Metternich, Brigitte Fassbaender, Erika Köth, Edda Moser, Birgit Nilsson, Thomas M. Stein, Hellmuth Matiasek, Francisco Araíza, Sir George Christie, René Kollo, Gérard Mortier, Hans Hirsch, Christoph Groszer, Nicholas Payne, Siegfried Jerusalem, Dominique Meyer, Evamaria Wieser, Bernd Loebe, Gustav Kuhn, Jürgen Kesting and Anja Silja. Soon enough, the names of the prizewinners could be found printed in programs at the world’s major opera houses – names like Vesselina Kasarova, Marina Rebeka, Christiane Karg, René Pape and Roman Trekel.

Creating Careers

The competition became more international. And once more, it was not only a way to discover talent all around the world. It also helped promote international understanding. “When those young people from so many countries arrive in Gütersloh, it’s always fascinating to see how quickly they make friends, how they overcome their differences and how they all speak one language through their music,” Mohn says. Yet the world has changed in the almost 30 years that the competition has been held – especially the world of opera. As is true of other occupations, the singer’s life has become much faster-paced than in the past: Decisions must be made, contacts maintained, offers accepted or declined, all in a short amount of time. At many opera houses, budgets have become more important than singers. The performers must thus ask themselves a range of questions: Should I accept this offer? Is the repertoire suitable? Is this the right venue for me? Am I earning enough? What’s my next step?

In keeping with the motto “Creating Careers,” the young talents are also supported once the “Neue Stimmen” competition has ended. In addition to regular invitations to appear and to participate in master classes and lied master classes, “Neue Stimmen” now offers more targeted assistance. It’s actually not possible to lose at the competition, Mohn feels. “Anyone who is chosen from among the 1,400 original participants to be one of the 40 who perform in Gütersloh is already a winner, whether or not they make it to the finals,” she says. “It’s not a defeat, but an opportunity. The door to a career opens – maybe even to a global career. After all, representatives from the opera world are closely watching what happens in Gütersloh that week. It’s always rewarding for us to see how the young people develop during that time and come into their own. I’ve gotten to know so many young people at these events. The best part is meeting them again years later – on stages all over the world.”

The children at the elementary school have now left their own small stage. It’s time for Liz Mohn to go. What remains is a feeling – shared by everyone. And the smile worn by Mohn. Even though she is at home all around the world and meets with high-level politicians and business leaders almost every day, she feels very fortunate to have experienced this charming moment. And the greatest gift of all: a life full of music.

RETURN to Nadezhda’s Story

CONTINUE  with “The Power of Music” – A Harvest of Song