Monday, July 3, 2017

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.     


For the last week or so, I have been racking my brains trying to remember a witty line by W.S.Gilbert (of Gilbert-and-Sullivan). I remember the meaning of the line, but I cannot recall the actual words. Therefore word-searches on line have been to no avail. Tant pis! I will simply have to give you the meaning as I dimly recall it. In a brisk and witty song (sung by a chorus, of course), Gilbert opined that when a chorus are (is?) all singing together, nobody can understand a word they are singing.

You may think you know what the ensemble is singing, but that is only because the general context will convey to you the sense of sadness, happiness, thoughtfulness and so on.

Of course it needn’t be this way when individual singers are singing, so long as their diction is clear – but even then, if the music is complex enough, the meaning of the words may be lost in trills and lengthened vowels following a melodic line and so on.

I have this in mind because about fourteen years ago my wife and I attended an opera at London’s English National Opera. Unlike Covent Garden, the English National Opera insists on singing only in English – so any non-English-language opera will be sung in an English-language translation. The opera we attended was Cosi Fan Tutte. We knew the jolly old warhorse pretty well already, and on the whole had no problem in followed its general plot. Two blokes go into disguise to test whether their girlfriends Dora and Lil (oh very well – Dorabella and Fiordiligi to you) will cheat on them when they’re away. Easy-peasy plot and no probs seeing where it was going in a general sense. BUT it was very hard to follow what the singers were singing at any given moment because they were singing in English and there were no surtitles. As we left, we concluded that we would have been happier had it been sung in the original Italian, with English surtitles provided. Moment by moment, we would have understood more.

To the horror of those who thought that being sung in English would make operas more accessible, our conclusion turned out to be the conclusion of a large part of the English National Opera’s audience. Increasingly, audience members asked why the ENO didn’t have surtitles like every other modern opera house. Reluctantly, in 2015, the ENO gave in and now the English-language singing is accompanied by English-language surtitles.

There has been some rearguard grumbling about this. Rather sniffily, in an interview with the Guardian in 2015, the ENO’s director said that they would continue to have surtitles but that his aim was to render them redundant by the clarity of the singers’ enunciation. (I would have thought he’d already lost the battle on that one.) He foolishly went on to opine that opera was more about music than about words, and that it was essentially music rather than drama. My friends Hugo von Hoffmanstahl and Lorenzo da Ponte vigorously disagreed with this idea, of course, arguing that if the drama is unimportant then why have libretti at all? Why not just have the singers making wordless musical noises if the music conveys all that opera offers? (Wagner wanted to chip in at this point to note that opera should be “total” theatre – music, drama and spectacle working together – but I cut him off before he started one of his rants.) More obviously, if the ENO’s director really thinks the words are of secondary importance, then why make such a fuss about singing them in English anyway. After all, the words don’t matter, do they?

I know that ideally, I would not be reading surtitles but listening and looking all the while at what is going on on stage. But comprehension demands surtitles

I have another reason for preferring surtitles over translations at the opera.

Kindly remember that when the (French, German, Italian, Russian etc.) librettist wrote, in his own language, the words to go with the music – or in rarer cases when the composer wrote the music to go with the libretto – it was those words with those sounds that were married to that music. Mozart wrote for Italian or German words and their sounds. Bizet wrote for French words and their sounds. Tchaikovsky wrote for Russian words and their sounds. To present an opera in a translation of those words is to present only a selection of the sounds that were intended to make up the opera. Indeed to wed a different language to the music of the opera is to present a grave distortion of what the opera is.

I regard opera translations in the same way that I regard dubbed films. They are not as good as subtitled films, which let us get the actors’ full performances and not merely part of them. (And have you noticed, by the way, how the habit of dubbng foreign-language films has basically died out?).

To end where I began – in any ensemble piece in opera (try the quartet in Rigoletto), or in any chorus, many of the words will be lost to listeners anyway. I know this, and I have not touched on the fact that, sans surtitles, much of the text of an English-language opera with be lost on an English-speaking audience. But please do not expect me to hear some buffoon sing “Woman is fickle” when Verdi intends him to sing “La donna e mobile”.

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