Soprano Jane Eaglen once told me that she would never sing Norma in English, how could “Casta Diva” be replaced by “Chaste Goddess”? In fact for Italian speakers, translations are often excruciating to listen to – but what about those who don't speak Italian? Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia, addresses the issue:
When Mozart wrote The Magic Flute, or Die Zauberflote, the librettist was a certain Emanuel Schikaneder, a theatrical impresario, actor, singer and composer in Vienna at the time, who also sang the role of Papageno in the first performances which began on September 30, 1791. Die Zauberflote was performed in German and it was a show that Schikaneder and Mozart decided to do as a popular entertainment with dialogue and music. Mozart and Schikaneder called it a singspiel that today would be called music-theatre, so it was vital that the audience understood all the text.
When Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlos premièred in Paris, it was performed in French, but for its Italian première e Verdi revised it and it was performed in Italian.
For many years Wagner's operas, when performed in Italy, were sung in Italian with Wagner's blessing and the operas of Janacek have been sung in English in English-speaking countries until very recently.
Composers have always wanted their work to be performed in the language that most of the audience speaks. It would then seem logical that every opera company in the world would adhere to the composer's wishes and perform their masterpieces in the language of the people who make up the audience.
However, not one major opera company in the world does this. Why not?
At a time when an enormous amount of work goes into researching original performance techniques – even ensuring that baroque music is played on period instruments in order to be faithful to the composer's wishes – we ignore the desire of those composers to have the audience understand what is being sung.
But what if the technology that enables us to enjoy surtitles, which most opera companies now use all over the world, had been available to Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and Mozart? Would they have still preferred their operas to be sung in the language of the audience, or would they have made other choices?
Well that, of course, is a very large question mark – we don't know. But what do our ears tell us? The German repertoire in English I personally have no problem with. Maybe because the sounds of the languages are similar. Or maybe it's because I don't speak German. But then my French isn't up to much, yet I prefer my Bizet and Berlioz in the original. Terracini sums up using two example from Opera Australia's repertory:
I firmly believe there are some operas that should be sung in the language that the majority of the audience speaks fluently, but most of the repertoire needs to be performed in the language in which it was originally written and in the language that the composer spoke fluently.
It's about finding the correct balance. Partenope worked marvellously well in English, La Boheme works wonderfully well in Italian.
via The Australian
Photo: Maria Callas as Norma
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.