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Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Language(s) of Opera

Looking at opera strictly from a linguistic perspective, the world’s classics generally fall into three major categories: Italian, French and German. Some works in the standard repertoire have been composed to English libretti—predominantly 20th-century pieces by Britten, Barber, Menotti, et.al.—plus a smattering in other languages, such as Czech (Dvořak) and Russian (Tchaikovsky, Borodin).

Other European composers have written operas in their native languages. Through a random sampling from Stanford University’s Opera Web site, I discovered the following:

Leevi Madetoja (1887–1947), two operas in Finnish
Henryk Melcer (1858–1925), two operas in Polish
Stellan Sagvik (b. 1952), nine operas in Swedish
Gyuda Majer (1858–1947), two operas in Hungarian
Mikis Theodorakis (b. 1925), five operas in Greek

I’m sure more research would uncover operas written in Norwegian, Portuguese and Danish, and perhaps even Albanian and Georgian. There exists an entire genre of Chinese opera, although it’s truly a world apart from the sort of material to which we in the West are accustomed. Operas in Spanish, generally known by the term zarzuela, have a unique format and an audience all their own.

Before the advent of SuperTitles™, it was quite common to see libretti translated into the language of the audience. The summer festival held annually in Central City, Colorado, only changed over from all-English productions a few years ago. The opera company in St. Louis does all of its operas in English, as does the London-based English National Opera. As I’ve mentioned before, I saw a production of Mozart’s “Seraglio” in Bucharest that was sung in Romanian.

One of the problems of performing operas “in translation” involves inadvertently changing the meaning of what the singers are saying, or else disrupting the meter of the line (through added or subtracted notes) to accommodate the different number of syllables necessary to impart the meaning of the sung bits.

Strictly from an aural perspective, Romance languages sound better when sung because of their emphasis on vowel sounds. Individual abilities aside—it’s certainly possible to hear some atrociously presented French and Italian, even by some of the world’s best opera singers—the melodious flow of lyrics penned by Eugene Scribe or Felice Romani are generally more pleasing to the ear, trumping anything written by Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, for example.

I’m using this brief posting as an introduction to a longer essay—which I’m hopeful will be online in a day or two—that introduces my readers to three composers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were pioneers in the true sense of the word, creating operas in languages that one may never have associated with that genre—before reading it here, that is.

Stay tuned…

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