Opera in translation

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Babelkitten eliminates need for surtitles

The issue of performing opera in translation has come up in comments on other blogs a couple of times recently.  I posted a few fragmentary thoughts in various places but feel that I need to get my thinking straight, coherent (hopefully) and in one place.  Basically what was bugging me was a recurrent theme that only the original language (not always as simple as it sounds) was acceptable.  Clearly this flies in the face of a long history of performance practice in major opera loving countries and, like most absolutist statements, looks quite dodgy when subjected to any sort of analysis

First I want to say that this is an issue I have thought about a lot.  I am old enough that some of my opera going experience predates surtitles when the issue was even more germane than today.  I think it might actually be useful to start by discussing the pre-surtitle world (Canada’s greatest invention since maple syrup) because it creates a historical context.  We can then look at whether surtitles resolve all the issues involved in “original language”.

Back in the 1970s and earlier the language one saw an opera in depended largely on where one was.  In France, Germany and Italy, for the most part, works were performed in the language of the audience.  I have DVDs of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing, inter alia, Count Almaviva and Rigoletto in German.  In the English speaking world one mostly heard works in the language the libretto was written in.  Go back earlier and one gets even odder things like Italian translations of German works being performed at the Met and Covent Garden.  Or the Met commissioning new work in Italian.

I think this represents two very different cultural attitudes to opera.  The first is audience focussed, essentially democratic and perhaps represents an idea that opera is for everyone (or at least for a large general audience).  It may also say something about opera as drama versus opera as “canary fancying”.  The second treats opera as an exotic alien form accessible only to those who have put in a great deal of effort, or Italian immigrants, or those who are there to see and be seen, or canary fanciers.  There are no prizes for guessing where I stand on that divide.  Now it happens that I started my opera going career in a city that offered a choice; London.  One could go see opera in the original at the Royal Opera House or in English at the Coliseum.  I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed to know what was going on and only went to Covent Garden for English language works.

Then came surtitles and I think they really were a game changer.  One could see and hear a work in an unfamiliar language and get the gist of what was going on.  But it is just the gist.  I’m struck by just how approximate surtitles often are.  This is especially true with something like French baroque works where rather elegant rhyming hexameters are reduced to something brief and prosaic.  Bottom line, I think surtitles are great but not perfect.  So, is there still a case for translation?  I think so.  At least in some cases.  The most compelling one is comedy.  Comedy is all about timing and with surtitles one loses that.  There’s no substitute for the well delivered comic line tied to the stage action and if it’s “tipped off” by the surtitles there’s a diminution of the effect.  Seeing Don Giovanni in English is a different experience from seeing it in Italian.

The counter argument does have some force.  There are composers and works where the text and music are extremely closely integrated.  I’m told this is true of Janáček though like most people who make this claim I’m taking conventional wisdom on trust.  I have no idea what Czech is supposed to sound like!  No doubt there are others who also took great pains to fit music to words but I don’t think Janáčeks are as common as the advocates of “original language at any cost” claim.  Several operas appear in “official” versions in more than one language with minor, if any, alterations to the music.  Then there are composers who recycle old tunes to fit new words.  One can take purism too far.

Finally I’d appeal to experience.  I defy anyone who saw the Goodall Ring in the Porter translation to say that it was unfaithful to the original in spirit or impact.  I’ve also seen a number of enjoyable performances of Mozart; both Italian and German, in Italian translation.  If they lost anything in legato (more a problem with Italian to English than German to English) they gained from immediacy and increased comedic impact.  Then there are witty updatings.  Joel Ivany’s La Bohème would have been absurd in Italian but provided great theatre in English.  And besides, those experienced opera folks the Germans, seem to realise that there is still a place for opera in translation.  The Britten centenary will see productions of Tod in Venedig and Sommernachtstraum.  Which ought to clinch it.

So, I think in an age of surtitles opera in the original language is and should be the norm but I feel really uncomfortable with the idea that opera in translation is heretical or only for the kiddified Christmas special.  I think it has a place.  The only thing that I really can’t come to terms with is dialogue or recitative in one language and the arias in another.  But that’s a whole different argument.

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42 thoughts on “Opera in translation

  1. The notion that translation renders opera more ‘accessible’ is patronising nonsense: firstly because the lines are often not comprehensible even in English, as the singers (rightly) concentrate on musical delivery, secondly because of the innovation of surtitles, which have been around for years, but appear to have had no impact on the ENO’s fatuous Anglophone policy, and finally because of programme notes, which are always the best way of finding out what the plot of an opera is.

    Anyway, opera is an artform intended principally to make audiences FEEL, not think. That, in fact, is what opera — is what music — is all about. Prior to our modern age, there’s not a composer of opera (or of music generally, for that matter) who ever lived who thought otherwise. Whence, then, this perverse, noxious, and ass-backwards impulse to make opera audiences think first, feel after?

    • “the lines are often not comprehensible even in English”

      Depends on the music. Generally, the music doesn’t just flow in one incomprehensible mess; there are moments, more lightly scored or written lower in the voice, when the words are quite comprehensible if you know the language. All that simple/secco recitative exists for a reason.

      In any case, I fail to see how wanting to know what is going on moment by moment as it happens gets in the way of being made to feel. Spoken drama–not to mention movies–is not necessarily a place where sensation takes second place to thought.

    • I’m not sure that presenting opera in the audience vernacular enables (or requires) wholly analytical engagement with the piece to the detriment of emotional engagement. The “thinking” part for me is in the score. But I can admire the mechanics of a piece of music while still being moved by it. I can love where Verdi as a melodist takes me, but also how unpredictably he has engineered the journey. I suppose my general lack of interest in opera in translation is because, in my sense of things, the words so closely adhere to the music that I find it disruptive to change the sound of them. To my ears it’s not unlike reassigning a role to a different voice category, or swapping out one solo instrument for a completely different one. On the other hand, things like that work fine for some composers (Bach), so clearly this is not a position I’d defend to the death on every front.

      I concede the point on comprehensibility, though. It probably isn’t a good idea to leave an audience’s understanding of an opera plot to singers’ diction, especially in a house that does international casting.

      Lastly, in my recalcitrant, elitist, Old School fashion I will suggest that the best way of finding out the plot of an opera is actually to know it way before you get to the program notes.

      • OMG! Study before the performance?? Noooooo. :)

        I am reminded of a story of a director staging La Clemenza di Tito (I forget who) who decided not to let Tito indicate that he was indeed going to pardon Sesto, so that the finale would be a surprised to the audience! Really? I mean, first of all, it’s called La Clemenza.. not La Indecision di Tito …. second, most folks going to the theatre to see LCdT most likely have a pretty good idea of what they are about to see. Now that’s an opera that might benefit from translation; opening up some comprehension for the pages and pages of dry (and prosaic) recitative.

      • More serious note. Realistically the vast majority of the audience are not going to study the work in advance. For most it’s entertainment, a night out, a date. If I go to a movie or a play (or even a musical) I don’t expect to have to pass an exam along with my ticket. No wonder people find opera intimidating!

      • I love Clemenza, too. And you have a good point, that many won’t study the opera, but often people already know a little something about it or a little something from it. And of course, there is always the synopsis in the program (if it’s not too dark in the theater and the font isn’t too small!)

      • Yeah, I know, I was lucky, my mom was teaching all this stuff, and our kitchen table was always covered with marked-up scores and libretti. Materials were harder to come by then, and time is harder to come by now.

        But I’m really not saying all this to be a snob. What I have found, even in this day and age of on-site technological aids, is that the new folks I take to the opera remember next to nothing about the performances they’ve seen if they go in cold — and that includes a Clemenza with ASvO, of which New Person could later say only that the orchestra was a bit dull. Now, that was true — it was the end of the season — but I think that, had she studied up a bit, she might also have remembered that the singing that night was absolutely drop-dead brilliant. So it ended up making the difference between a throwaway night at the opera and an experience that might really have meant something.

      • I totally agree with you that the effort is worthwhile. This is even more obviously true with newer works… BUT it’s not what most people are going to do (even if they know how). I’m not sure what the implications of that are really because I’m certainly not arguing for dumbing down.

  2. I’m still not sure where I stand on this question. I’m not supremely fluent in either Italian or German, but I understand enough (and know some opera libretti well enough) to hear the connections between music and text, and I find that I like it; but at the same time, I often like knowing only the gist and focusing on the singing as music alone. With operas that are not in English, I can choose whether to focus on understanding the text or not, and I rather like having the choice.

    I wish I had seen more opera in English – the one time I did see one of Mozart’s operas in English, I found it very enjoyable; but I’ve also listened to a recording of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in English and it just seemed weird and off to me. But I’d have to go back and hear it again to put my finger on exactly what caused me to have that reaction.

    Re: dialogue/recitative in one language and singing in another – what did you think of the English/German swapping in the Salzburg King Arthur? I found I hardly noticed, but I know that this reaction is not universal.

    • I loved that King Arthur and the language issue didn’t bother me but I think it’s an unusual case. The music and the play aren’t integrated in King Arthur. The actors and singers are different people so I found it less of a jar to go from an actor speaking German to a singer singing English than to have the same person sing “Susanna still doesn’t come” and then break into “Dove sono”.

      • That Figaro example would be weird, I grant you that. I’m reminded now of this recording of Telemann’s Orpheus, which is a total hodge-podge: it’s all sung, but the language switches back and forth between German and Italian and in one case to French. I found it kind of charming, but then again, none of the languages is English, so that may have made it feel less jarring than it might to someone who was primarily a German or Italian speaker.

      • And I am reminded of that old Covent Garden Fledermaus where the arias were in German (or maybe it was English) but the recits were in the language of whichever singer was speaking them. I thought that was pretty cool at the time (age 10).

    • English is a notoriously difficult language to sing in, though oddly, Europeans often do a better job. Also, for most sopranos, enunciating anything on a note at or above an F is best left undone. So understanding them in ANY language up high is a crap shoot. But I wouldn’t rule out any language based on that, as it’s much more a physiological than musical issue.

  3. I think I fall into the middle ground with operaramblings and earworm. (WARNING:Rob-Ramble Ahead!)

    I hardly think that Mozart, Verdi, or Rossini—to name a few composers off the top of my head—didn’t care if the audience understood what was going on. Opera is Drama, otherwise you might as well put everyone in tuxes and do a concert performance. Actually I’ve seen some pretty dramatic concert performances, as well as some pretty non-dramatic stagings, (KoffChristophLoyKoffKoff) too.

    Verdi and Mozart worried their librettists continually to get the right words. I think they must have wanted the audience to do more than let the music wash over them. Mozart occasionally lamented that he had to write show-off music for his singers, rather than supplying music to best fit the text. Verdi also wrote to accommodate his singers, but seemed to always be striving to find the best way to make a dramatic effect (Lady Macbeth). Mozart, in fact, must have wanted us to think when he would undercut a cheerfull-ish text with some anxious-sounding music. Le Nozze di Figaro was a social satire, for heaven’s sake! And Verdi and Wagner (and even Puccini), when they bring back little themes and motives from Act 1 to underscore action in Acts 2 or 3, probably would like us to think about why they did that—well think AND feel.

    Of course, both Verdi and Rossini wrote operas in French that they had to translate to Italian (or the other way round). I understand that on occasion during the world wars, the Met did Wagner only in Italian. The Bartered Bride got its Met debut in German, and subsequently, I believe has only been performed there in English. I’m not saying it’s great, but it happens. In fact, Smetana authorized a German translation of his opera (not the translation used at the Met, however.) And opera stars of that day would often sing whatever language they learned the opera, regardless of what language everyone else on stage was singing.

    Pretty music that makes you feel something is good, but I defy any non-German speaker to stay tuned in to the lengthy digressions of the Ring (or Parsifal), without having a pretty good idea what’s going on.

    Now, I have to admit I now find Die Hochzeit des Figaro less lovely than Le Nozze, and though it sounds pretty darned good, Lohengrin in Italian is a bit strange. I don’t think opera in English is ideal, but if helps create another opera fan, bring it on. And if that’s what it takes to keep someone away, so be it.

    So opera works if you turn off your brain, but how much more is there, if you do decide to think. Now, I am not saying opera has to be in English in order to make us think. Stage directors Neuenfels and Decker, and McVicar (to name a few) certainly make us think in German, Italian, and French!

    I realize I have focused on translations but not on English. My first opera recordings were (natch) in the original languages, but my first live exposure to opera (listening and performing) were in English. I still get bits of the Ruth and Thomas Martin texts stuck in my brain when listening to Figaro. I love opera, no matter what (well, as long as it’s sung and played well.)

    I just had an intriguing (to me) thought that the Willy Decker Traviata, which already makes the thinking opera-lover think, would be pretty awesome in English. How immediate that would feel. Not that I want to throw away the Italian. I’m just saying that dismissing opera in English (or another non-original language) outright is the opposite of patronizing. That would make it…what? Snobbery?

    [Pausing for breath]

    On a slightly different note, I’ve been watching a lot of webcasts from Europe, and I’ve discovered that if the opera is in Italian and the subtitles are in German, I can follow almost everything that’s going on. That goes for German opera with Spanish subtitles, and Italian opera with French subtitles. Sometimes knowing a little bit about a lot IS helpful! (However, Dutch, Swedish, or Danish subtitles are significantly less helpful to me, no matter what language the opera is sung in.)

    P.S. Where can I get a cute little babelkitten of my own? :)

    • Babelkittens are in depressingly ample supply at The Humane Society. We fostered several dozen over the years from any age from a day old to a few weeks old until they were ready to go to permanent homes. At least three of them ended up with music loving friends and, of course, that’s how we got adopted by Lady Jane.

      • As we were just looking for a babelkitten of our own, I ended up friending a local fostering consortium on fb. Needless to say, this is a slippery slope. We ended up with a babelcat — saves us having to kitten-proof the apt and she speaks fluent Vlrt — but we might well be sucked into the fostering vortex ourselves at some point.

      • Yeah, I know, the other two were pulled out of the woodpile out back at the age of 5 days. Vet tech experience, though back in the day, is still sometimes a useful thing.

      • I cared for my first foster kitten last summer, Flosshilde. We stumbled upon her quite unexpectedly but my wife has fostered many over the years (and only kept one). It was quite something, watching her learn to walk, to play and outwit our 2-year old Maine Coon.

  4. I am favourable to translations, as I began to listen to opera before surtitles existed, at a very young age when I couldn’t read easily (so sub- or surtitles wouldn’t have been of much use). As a small child I loved Amahl and the Night Visitors . Perhaps not High Art, but an introduction to musical drama in my native language that left me with a desire to hear more. At age 6 I received some Hansel and Gretel marionnettes and my teacher got our class to put on scenes from Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (in English translation). It was a key childhood experience and we couldn’t have done it in any other language. Later, in early adolescence I went with my class to the National Opera for the Marriage of Figaro (in English) : I fell in love simultaneously with the story and the music – going on to read Beaumarchais and look for other Mozart operas – then other operas, period. If translations can help bring young people to opera as they did me, I’m all for them.

  5. In my life as a pre-surtitles opera newb, you just put the work in and learned the libretto. But it was easier to spend six months on one opera back then, because access was generally limited to what recordings you could scrape up. I personally find English translations really distracting, because then I’m thinking about translation issues to the detriment of anything else. Though this problem may well be worse with text flashing in front of my eyes.

    • I certainly find surtitles more distracting from that point of view if the sung language is one I have some comprehension in (basically French but it happens a bit with German too).
      I don’t think back in the day more than a tiny fraction of the audience ‘learned the libretto’. They just let the music wash over them. There are possibly roots of the Europe vs English speaking world Regie issue buried in there somewhere.

      • There are possibly roots of the Europe vs English speaking world Regie issue buried in there somewhere. This strikes me as an idea worth pursuing. Would take some digging, though.

  6. This is such a complex subject, and dear to my heart, so just some random thoughts/observations:
    1) Logic should be the deciding factor here. It’s nonsensical to have a Russian or Czech opera performed in America by a cast of American singers valiantly but futilely struggling to sing the original language phonetically. Nobody is well-served by this.
    2) Years ago I was at a Barber of Seville sung in English – and with no supertitles – where the audience, forced to listen carefully, was more engaged than I’ve ever seen at a performance of a comic opera in Italian. And imagine this: The laughs were reactions to what the singers sang, not translations the audience read a beat or two early.
    3) Hybrid performances are by far the worst. I recently endured a Fidelio with the dialogue in English and the “music” in German. Don’t even try to imagine the melodrama scene. And in a recent university Perichole done this way, the subliminal message was that the “fun” parts were in English and the “classical” (read: boring, dull) parts were in French – badly pronounced by a cast of otherwise thoroughly engaging young Americans.
    4) I actually like titles for operas in languages of which I have some knowledge. I use them as memory joggers: A quick glance at the text lets me then understand most of the singers’ actual words as they sing them, with close to the immediacy that they should have.

    • I like watching French baroque works with the French subtitles. My French isn’t quite good enough to catch 17th/18th century sung French consistently but I can do it with prompts and I like to see the verse structure which I wouldn’t get in translation.

  7. So, it seems that:

    (a) for musical purposes (at least) opera the original language is the optimum

    (b) super/sur/sub-titles are generally a good thing, even though the translations are usually approximate at best

    (c) opera in (English) translation is a compromise, but there are definitely situations in which they are good/helpful/not offensive (to most people)

    (d) adopting cats is a good, though potentially emotional thing, though cats that are capable of simultaneous translation are probably more rare than this discussion would lead one to believe

    (e) it’s amazing and wonderful how a responses to a blog post can spontaneously split into two or more relatively unrelated directions and still remain coherent, interesting, and friendly.

    Incidentally, this summary is in no way intended to do anything but summarize what I think I have learned from this dialogue so far. I look forward to the discussion continuing. I just wanted to add my two cents :).

    • I agree with all of these points. My unconsidered opinion would have been Original Language, Of Course! but that position doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Of course this now means I need to reconsider seeing The Thieving Magpie by the Bronx Opera over the next couple weeks but I am OK with that.

      Interestingly when I was younger and into classical music but not quite understanding opera it was Nixon In China that got me hooked though it is hard to tell how much of it was the language and how much was the subject.

      Also my favorite trick at the Met is setting my Met Titles to the language being sung (when available) and then watch the English Met Titles on the seat in front of me when necessary. I don’t speak anything other than English but I can more or less follow along, especially if I’ve studied the libretto beforehand.

  8. As a very newcomer to opera, I must admit I don’t have much experience with operas in translation. I have listened to some though, and I find that:
    1) Sometimes I’m simply favorable to the version I heard first, whether it was a translation or not: Cherubini’s Medee, for example – I’ve listened to it in Italian first and then in French, and I liked the Italian more (although when it comes to opera, I overall prefer Italian to French…).
    2) I have no problem with a translation as long as it fits the music. The first time I watched Die Zauberflöte was when I watched Bergman’s movie at the age of 5, and thanks to becoming infatuated with the thing and begging my dear parents to get me other recordings as well, I was able to listen to the opera in its original language too – both Swedish and German worked for me back then, and they still do. The German version of The Barber of Seville sounds pretty nice too. Also, I’ve recently listened to snippets of Lohengrin in German and Italian, and though the Italian is a bit weird, I still quite like it. The same cannot be said of the Hungarian version, and also it brings me to my next point:
    3) I find it a bit annoying when they sing in the language I actually understand. Maybe it’s just me, but I like when I don’t understand directly, from word to word, sentence to sentence, what they are singing, but know it by being familiar with the libretto. It’s a bit like what Earworm said, I think; understanding the gist of the text, and focusing more on the music.
    4) I generally don’t like the English language when sung. I love to speak it, I love to read in it, but listening to it in opera is a bit torturous for me – I still couldn’t manage to get through the ENO’s Giulio Cesare and Maria Stuarda, Dame Janet Baker or no. (There are exceptions though, like Handel’s Hercules, which I absolutely love, but maybe it’s cause it’s not a translation.) German is the other way around: I had serious problems with it when I was trying to learn it some years ago, and I really dislike it as a spoken language, but when sung, it’s perfect. It might be because of the understanding thing I mentioned in the previous point though.

    Sorry if I’m incoherent and/or ununderstandable, putting those thoughts into words would be hard for me even in my native tongue :D

    • “putting those thoughts into words would be hard for me even in my native tongue”

      Not as hard as they would be for most of us (pace Leslie) to read! Seriously though, I really appreciate the extra effort made by non-native English speakers to contribute to these discussions. They provide additional perspectives I find hugely valuable.

      “I generally don’t like the English language when sung”

      I do, though perhaps not so much translations of works originally in another language. Purcell’s songs and operas, Handel’s oratorios, song cycles by Vaughan-Williams and Warlock, almost anything by Britten. All are huge favourites. I even quite like some works sung in Merkan. Rohrem’s settings of Whitman for example or some of John Adams’ operas.

  9. Can’t believe I missed this conversation – fascinating. I think we need to talk about this on the podcast – obviously lots of people have strong opinions on this issue. All I’ll add is that without hesitation, the most I’ve ever enjoyed a production of The Marriage of Figaro was at Opera Atelier (Toronto) in the mid-90s when they were still doing most of their productions in English. Without a doubt, I strongly feel that recitative-heavy, comic works really benefit from being sung in the vernacular. The problem is that it becomes a much harder call in the realm of bel canto/later Romantic works…endlessly fascinating topic regardless.

  10. Pingback: A statistical round up of 2013 | operaramblings

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