Magazine article The Spectator

Music's the Thing

Magazine article The Spectator

Music's the Thing

Article excerpt

Should operas performed here be translated into English? This was debated recently in the letters pages of the Daily Telegraph, but there is nothing new about the argument. Assiduous readers may recall The Spectator issue of 21 March 1710, in which Joseph Addison commented on attempted translations of Italian opera, whereby `our authors would often make words of their own which were entirely foreign to the meaning... to make the numbers of the English verse answer to those of the Italian, that both of them might go to the same tune'. It was and remains a genuine dilemma.

Imagine yourself in the stalls at Covent Garden. You've paid good money to be there. You speak English. The cast speaks English. Even the conductor speaks English. But when the singing starts, it's incomprehensible gibberish. Who's kidding whom? Given all the usual problems of communication between stage and audience, the looming presence of the proscenium arch, the gaping chasm of the pit, who needs a foreign language as well? It's easy enough to laugh at grown men gesticulating (in the trade it's called `acting for the upper circle') in weird costumes, without adding to their grief with funny consonants. At the heart of the argument lies the call for accessibility, the opening up of obscure texts, the blowing away of cobwebs whether in opera, or Chaucer, or church liturgy. Many people do feel excluded by opera. Why make it worse by perpetuating the foreign language barrier?

Part of my job is putting on Italian operas in inner-city schools: to 150 tenyear-olds at a time, in their school halls. This year we're doing Rigoletto. When I go in the week before to prepare them for the worst, they've spent the summer term adding the history of Francois Premier and Victor Hugo, and the geography of the Austrian occupation of Venice to meet the more conventional requirements of Ofsted. They've also acted out an English translation of the libretto in class, taking it in turns to play the main parts. In short, they comprise the best prepared opera audiences this side of Bayreuth. So I'm looking at dozens of Gildas, Sparafuciles and Marullos when I finally say, `Any questions?' A forest of hands. `Yes?' The first question is always the same. `Why are you singing it in Italian?'

So I divide the class into four groups. Group One stands silently behind me in order to listen, while Groups Two, Three and Four separate in front. Group Two practise shouting out: `Good morning, all!', Group Three: `What a nice day!' and Group Four: `Goodbye for ever!' Everybody ready? I raise my hand, suspenseful silence, and then I drop it, the signal for the three vocal groups to let go. Oh, and I've told them it'll be a failure if no one comes to complain about the noise. What did Group One hear? It was very loud, and in their own language. They'd heard each of its ingredients carefully rehearsed. And yet ... ? Total jumble.

`Would it have made any difference if you'd done all that in Italian?' I ask. They shake their heads. That gives them the simplest argument for staying with the original: it doesn't actually matter. What little you gain from catching the slower recitatives and the occasional opening line of a solo is a hefty price to pay for the musicality that's lost in wrenching the new language to fit, the near-impossibility of matching the happy (and intentional) conjunction of words and music that flows naturally from the words the composer first worked with. Contrast and compare in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, the librettist Da Ponte's original `Vedro per man d'amore/unita a un vile oggeto' to the translation `Must I behold my charmer/To low-born clown united? …

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