Magazine article The Spectator

Opera's Unsung Heroes

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera's Unsung Heroes

Article excerpt

Translating, often referred to as an unsung art, is quite literally the opposite when undertaken for the purposes of singing itself. A number of British opera companies give performances of operas in English translation, and Chandos Records produce an `Opera in English' series, backed with characteristic passion and commitment by the Peter Moores Foundation. There is therefore a small group of people specialising in this particular form of chemistry.

Translating words to fit music is a slippery, subtle and tricky business. The paramount consideration must be clarity. Clarity of meaning and clarity in the rendering of the words themselves, so that they are intelligible when sung. It isn't possible to make English actually sound like German, French, Italian, Russian or Czech but it is important somehow to give a flavour of the original language because that flavour is directly reflected in the music to which the words were set. The sound of music sung in Italian is shaped by the preponderance of open vowel sounds, both within and at the ends of words. It is almost impossible to create the same effect in English, a language rich in consonants.

I discovered this at first hand when making my own debut attempt at providing a singing translation from the Italian for a recital disc by the soprano Elizabeth Futral. The song was `II Bacio' (The Kiss), immortalised as I remembered by the chirruping tones of Deanna Durbin. What's more, I thought I had a tape of it somewhere. I found the tape, I listened to it, I remembered the tune - this seemed to be a good start. Then a copy of the music arrived. I compared the two. There were whole chunks missing - Deanna had skipped all the tricky bits. I found another recording, by Joan Sutherland. She didn't skip anything; she added things - a whole lot of trills and runs that definitely didn't correspond to what was on the paper in front of me. And although both of them were ostensibly singing in Italian, you wouldn't have wanted to swear to it in a court of law.

I started by making a completely literal translation, word for word. Then I started again, trying to weave in internal rhyme schemes where they occurred in the original, attempting to keep its jaunty, flirtatious tone, striving for open vowel sounds at the ends of lines, agonising over how far I could stray from the sense while still within the spirit of what was intended. I sang it over and over again, relentlessly, until it nearly drove me mad. Eventually I thought I'd bludgeoned the words enough to be singable. It looked all right on paper. I sent it to Ludmilla Andrew, singer, vocal coach and translations supremo for this recording. She said it was fine but that she'd got a few suggestions that would make it easier to sing. She sent it back to me. The witty, Cole Porterish twists I was rather proud of had disappeared; instead of a new idea for every line there was a string of repetitions; it was not at all what I thought would be wanted.

In the end, thanks to her generosity and limitless patience and as a result of a number of sessions singing phrases at each other down the telephone, we ended up with something that we were both happy with. But I'd made heavy work of it, and that was just one little song. What on earth would it be like to tackle an entire opera?

Amanda Holden has tackled quite a number of them, mostly from the Italian but also from German and French. She feels that the role of a translator is essentially a self-effacing one, that the highest compliment anyone could pay her would be to have no idea that her translations of Alcina and Falstaff were by the same person. As she says, the difficulties of translating are increased by 50 per cent when translating to fit music. …

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