Vacation thoughts — opera in English

I’ve said before that I don’t love English titles onscreen or in the opera house when an opera is sung in English. (Scroll down to the section on Britten’s Peter Grimes if you follow the link.) They seem geeky, to say the least, and only reinforce the notion that opera is — by nature — remote and unfathomable. (Even while they make it accessible. There’s a paradox there.)

Well, late in July, I saw Britten’s Billy Budd in a quite good production at the Santa Fe Opera. Of course there were titles, but I was also able to understand most of the singers, a good deal more than half the time they sing. And yes, the singers in this opera all are men; it’s women who have an especially hard time being understood, thanks to acoustical peculiarities with certain vowels sung on high notes. But still — I understood these singers most of the time.

And it was when one of them suddenly sang one line — in the midst of a longish aria —  that I couldn’t understand, that I suddenly realized what one of the problems is. There might be inherent problems in understanding the words when opera singers sing. There may have been problems like that even in smaller theaters in past centuries. (The texts of the operas being performed were routinely on sale, for instance, in 19th century Italy.) But how hard do we work, even now, on making sure opera singers can be understood?

Yes, an opera singer will be trained in diction — clarity and correct pronunciation of all languages — and coaches sometimes will work on those things, even with established professionals. But is there anyone sitting out in the house during rehearsals, telling singers when their words aren’t clear? I’ve never heard of that being done. Would a rehearsal be stopped because someone couldn’t be understood in the 25th row? Would anyone have told the singer who made me think all this, “Look, almost everything you sang was understandable, except the two phrases at the start of page 193 in the vocal score”?

And if we don’t work on this, why should we be surprised when singers’ words aren’t clear? They themselves can’t know when they’re understandable, and when they’re not. Maybe if we made this a higher priority, those strange, redundant, English-on-English titles wouldn’t be needed.

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  1. says

    One of the things I really dislike about the super-titles is the way you read the complete sentence of text before they actually sing the whole thing, ruining the effect of any surprises or punch-lines in the way the text is set. I think this makes it impossible to appreciate a lot of subtleties in the ways a composer sets text. In music theater they sing so you can understand every word (imagine how much the effect of a witty Sondheim song would be ruined if you read the sentence before they actually sang it!), I don’t see why they can’t do it in opera. And I also think people should have no qualms whatever about doing operas in translation. When I was in college, we did The Magic Flute, Don Giovanni, Tales of Hoffman and other operas in English with no supertitles and it was fantastic! These were non-professional students, singing in dining halls, but you could understand every word, and you actually knew exactly what was going on as it happened. I know people say you lose the beauty of the vowel sounds from the original language, but so what? Why this obsession with a beautiful sound at the expense of dramatic content? Isn’t opera fundamentally about drama?

  2. Kim says

    Actually, there is someone sitting in the house during rehearsal, taking detailed notes for the singers about which words/phrases are and aren’t clear. In truth, the rehearsal isn’t stopped for it, for that would hardly be efficient. But the details on the clarity of the text are used to improve intelligibility on an ongoing basis.

    That said, I do not believe there is any way to make absolutely every word understandable in opera.

    Kim, how nice to see you here on my blog! I can very well believe you work hard on intelligibility at Wolf Trap. That’s one of the reasons your production this summer of Verdi’s “Un giorno di regno” was so fabulous! (Done under the English title of “King for a Day.”) I’ve rarely had a happier night at the opera. Everything was terrific — singing, staging, conducting (I’ve forgotten the conductor’s name, but he has a fabulous flair for bel canto, and seems to love both the physical verve of the music, and the lyricism.) And the intelligibility!

    But is equal care taken at other places? On the largest question, I’m sure you’re right. There’s no way to make every word understandable. But I still think opera performers could do a lot better than they currently do.

  3. David Cavlovic says

    Back in my broadcast days at the CBC, when I was working on the Opera show, we had a little segment we called OpEd–editorials about opera by people who love the genre. One regular contributor, who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent and the guilty, can nevertheless be described as the doyenne of the Canadian opera scene. An incredible personality, we never checked ahead of time what her piece would be before she came in for a taping. She was also of that generation that would have a sherry or ten with her dinner. Needless to say, she was pleasantly soused when she came into the studio (word was that, back in her day, she was known to be quite capable of entertaining the entire Maple Leaf hockey team. I believe it, and wished I knew her back then!) This was her introductory statement that we recorded: “Thershe an awful problem with the dictshiun of todaysh opera shingersh!” I don’t remember the rest because my tech. and I were on the floor in hysterics. I do remember, though, that the editorial could not be used because of “dictshiun” problems!

  4. Jim says

    When I was first beginning to listen to opera I worked for a woman who told me that she hated opera in English. When I asked why she said it was because she still couldn’t understand what they were singing, but the strain of trying to understand them gave her a headache. Over the years I have often had reason to agree with her and have come to appreciate supertitles even for English language performances.

  5. says

    Greg, years ago I visited London and purchased a copy of a book on singing by Harry Plunkett Greene. Andrew Porter had recommended it in his New Yorker columns. Greene’s chapters on diction are superb.

  6. Steve Ledbetter says

    But is there anyone sitting out in the house during rehearsals, telling singers when their words aren’t clear? I’ve never heard of that being done. Would a rehearsal be stopped because someone couldn’t be understood in the 25th row?

    I’m coming to this entry late, Greg, but that question reminded me of a performance at Tanglewood about a dozen years ago by the very talented vocal fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. Most of the summer they sang art songs in many languages (including English), and they were coached extensively on the diction. They tried very hard to get the text out clearly and naturally while singing (some, naturally, with more success than others).

    But they all, I think, had an eye-opening experience when David Kneuss, a director on the staff at the Met, put together an entire program of Rodgers & Hart songs — wonderful songs in which the lyrics were among the most brilliant ever created, witty and colloquial with brilliant and elaborate rhyme schemes. Almost all of the participants were native speakers of English, and they loved the songs they were singing as much as many members of the audience did.

    But they were shocked when their songs did not get laughs at the punchlines — especially when they realized that the audience had simply not understood the words! (And this was in performance with piano, not orchestra.) It was a sharp lesson in the challenge of REALLY putting the text right into the lap of the audience.

    Of course, in opera, the challenge is even greater. The hall is bigger, there are often distractions onstage, the singer has an orchestra between him/herself and the listener, and the language is often in a poetically inverted form that makes it hard enough to understand even if read without music.

    Like you, I’ve been to some operas in English were I understood almost everything (at least from some members of the cast), but it is still one of the great challenges in live, unmiked opera to get all those words out to every corner of the house!