Accessible Language in Opera

Reading an article in the NY Times today I realised I "grew" up in an era where Supertitles were on the cutting edge, not necessarily something we took for granted or just accepted as common place, found in all the "best" houses - but rather a new idea that still struggles after 25 years.

I didn't grow up in New York, so the opera of my childhood (more than 25 years ago) was found on PBS which included subtitles. When I finally made my way to the opera house, Denver they didn't have the technology. Then (some years later), I found myself in the San Francisco Opera house and glad to see they did have it. But at this point I thought this was because San Francisco was a more upscale house, not because this was necessarily a new technology at the time.

The article goes on to discuss what opera houses did before supertitles. Some provided the libretto in the programme, or at least a detailed synopsis. Others began performing translations to make the opera more accessible.

When I ventured to Edinburgh and saw a production (granted this was an amateur one) perform a translation of an opera, I found the whole experience odd to stay the least. The music didn't seem to fit the flow of the language (or visa versa). Even though I could understand (for the most part) what people were singing about, I had the synopsis in the programme. The expense of hiring a supertitle machine (and operator) was probably beyond the budget of this amateur group, and they wanted the performance to be accessible for their audience. Surely the audience could have understood the plot without needing to understand every word. IMHO, that is the role of the music, to provide a sense of what lies behind the words - the thoughts and feelings of the characters so that, while the words are important (my librettist would kill me if she thought I felt the words were superfluous) they are not so critical that we should sacrifice the music with a translation.

English is a wonderfully poetic language, but very different from Italian or German. What a composer can do with the music of the words in Italian just doesn't work in the English language. The reverse is true as well. English is my mother tongue, so I prefer to work with English words in music. As such, there are ways I play with the language to use the sounds the words make to enhance the music. I think a translation into any other language using the same music would fail to capture this essence.

Many years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Oedipus Rex in the original Greek. I don't have a background in Greek, so all the words were Greek to me. Yet, the music of the language, the poetry of the sounds was evident in the performance. Even though this was a play and not an opera, there was still music in the words. I prefer this production over others I have seen with an English translation, because I have yet to see a translated version which captures the music of the original.

Opera, for me, is very much the same. If the composer did their job, the music and the words should be married to such a degree that a translation would require a re-write of the music. So, rather than translate, provide supertitles. Allow the music to sing in its original, and technology to bridge the gap.


Eddie Louise said…
I'll happily give you the benefit of the doubt and agree that when you say superfluous you mean that in opera the words and music must inter-twine until they are inseparable! Rather like us!

This is why I some times struggle to write 'final copy' until we know where the music will take us.

It is a good thing we live together so that we are both available when the muse calls!

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