Monday, November 28, 2011 - 12:00 AM

Attentive readers will have noted the Malapropism/Quayleism/Bushism/Palinism/Cainism that is the title of this dispatch and will know what I plan to discuss. But who knew that Mrs. Malaprop was a Republican?

Having just completed a brief trip in the Mediterranean, I was impressed by the qualitative improvement of English language skills in Italy, Slovenia and Catalonia. Yet I was amused by how certain words were pronounced: Fruit became fru-it and juice became joo-iss. This makes sense in nations where almost every vowel is pronounced.

But it set me to thinking about how certain singers mispronounce words in operas or barely pronounce them at all. There is a current soprano, from Rome, who shall remain nameless. She has a rich voice and volume to spare, but has the worst diction in Italian I can think of. It is not that she pronounces things wrong, but sings in a stream of sound that is not cognizant of consonants.

Potato, potahto? Tomato, tomahto...?

But first, a joke, which is not easy to tell without my reciting it. So I will seek the help of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who sing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George and Ira Gershwin. Listen to it and then I will tell you the joke.

Here is the joke: A young actress names Arlene Levine goes to audition for a role in a Broadway show. The director hands her some sheet music which she scans before starting to sing, without any of the different pronunciations done by Fred and Ginger. She begins, “You say potato, and I say potato. You say tomato, I say tomato....”

The director cuts her off: “Thanks very much. Not quite what were looking for. We'll call you if we have anything for you Ms. Levine.”

“It’s not Luh-veen,” she huffed. "It’s Luh-vine! It rhymes with “Divine.”

Words are important in opera, needless to say, and I admire singers who take them seriously. Luciano Pavarotti was my gold standard for Italian usage and made music out of the sound and meaning of the words. He never pronounced anything wrong. Marilyn Horne takes them seriously too. Deborah Voigt is wonderful in German. Two other singers who give great care to words in every language they use are Simon Keenlyside and Bryn Terfel. German singers who are trained in lieder seem to give much more flavor to German text and, often, in other languages too.

But there are far too many singers from every country who might be audible and discernible, but they pronounce things wrong! Some of this comes in their training, while others have big accents in their native languages that they cannot minimize. While Olga Borodina, Maria Guleghina and Dmitri Hvorostovsky do credible work in other languages, many Russians and Ukrainians run afoul of vowels. There was a Russian tenor about twenty years ago with a beefy voice and ringing high notes, but his vowels in Italian and French were the stuff of high comedy. His O sound always became a constricted U, so that he would sing to Floria Tosca and call her Flurria Tewska. As Don José (Dewn Uhw-zay-UH) he sang to Carmen (Kwer-MAINYA) about la fleur (Lya Fwurya), crushing the poetry with every syllable he sang.

I have noticed that many fine singers who train in England, and have generally commendable pronunciation in Italian, all seem to pronounce the letter E as ee rather than the preferable ay (as in day) or the acceptable eh. You can hear this most often in that omnipresent noun, amore. Pavarotti would pronounce it ah-MORE-ay. Well-trained British artists might say ah-MORE-ee. Some people from Central and Eastern Europe might muddy the middle vowel and pronounce it, ah-MURR-eh. Any way you look at it, this is the love that dares not pronounce its name correctly.

The Twubble mit Itahlyen

It is no secret that I adored Hildegard Behrens as a singer, artist and person. Her performances in Wagner and Strauss were sensational in every way. She sang some Italian roles and managed well enough, but the text-heavy Tosca exposed a weakness. I heard all of her 1985 performances with Plácido Domingo and Cornel MacNeil when the Zefferilli production was new. She was very exciting, but often sounded like a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Barbara Walters as she recited iconic phrases that every opera lover knows by heart.

In the early performances of the run she called Scarpia an "azzazzino" and, after stabbing him, cried "Maui! maui dannato, maui!," as if she were sending him off to a Hawaiian island. And, as she stood over his dead body, she ruefully observed, "E avanti a wooi twemava tutta Woma!"

Behrens continued to work on her pronunciation during the run of performances so, by the time it was documented on video, the roughest edges had been smoothed out. But if you watch this clip from the last part of Act Two of Tosca, you will see that Cornell MacNeil and, especially, Anthony Laciura did a much better job at saying the Italian words as Puccini would have wanted.

I am sending this post from the airport in Barcelona or, as the gate agent said, Barssalona. As I was typing these words, a woman with heels high enough to be in a film by Almodóvar, barked into her thellphone, “Donde ethtamos? Ethtamos en Barthelona!”

Which linguistic manglings have you enjoyed at the opera house?


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Comments [21]

Neil Schnall

I wonder what the AP stylebook has to say about "so thus"....

Dec. 09 2011 02:58 PM
Michael Meltzer

WQXR's reply to Neil Schnall only confirms my more-and-more frequent observation that WQXR is run by journalists, not musicians.
The music world has its own vocabulary, usage, conventions, protocols and ways of thinking. You don't yet know them. Other criteria are often just silly. If a badly out-of-tune piano needs two or three tunings, Microsoft Word Spellcheck will tell you that "tunings" is not a word.
Many musical words originating in a given language have become international vocabulary. Since musicians are expected to learn fundamentals of several languages, they are not uncomfortable with the protocols that accompany the formerly "foreign" words.
There is NO SUCH WORD as "lieder" with a small "l." If you are uncomfortable with "Lieder," you live in too small a box to do your music job correctly and appropriately.

Dec. 09 2011 01:07 AM
Neil Schnall

The fact that I found both Voigt's vocalism (in that particular live performance broadcast) as well as her German pronunciation wanting does not mean I am unable to distinguish between them.
As for disagreeing about the Italian, it's your blog - disagree all you want.
@WQXR's Editor: Congratulations on going by the book! I guess that absolves you of actually getting it right.

Dec. 06 2011 03:48 PM

@Neil Schnall: The Editor weighing in here. WQXR.org goes by the AP Stylebook, which means we use a small L for lieder. Generally we don't go by foreign language naming conventions, so thus you'll never see "art nouveau," as the French would write, but instead, "Art Nouveau."

An interesting question given the topic of Fred's blog!

Dec. 02 2011 11:26 AM
Fred Plotkin

To Neil Schnall: You are indeed correct that Lieder should be capitalized. I checked the original submission of my article and, in fact, I did spell it with a capital L. Must have changed while flying through cyberspace from Barcelona. I will have it fixed. But I cannot agree with you about how amore is pronounced. It really does end with an ay (as in day or weigh) and not eh (as in bet). To Amanda Schnall: Well, at least we agree on our adoration of Hildegard Behrens. I was in the wings for most of those Toscas. She did not use a D where an R would be (such as muori). Her Rs really became Ws. To both of you, re Voigt: I think you are responding to what you consider the current state of her singing, which you describe as effortful What I was referring to is the way she pronounces German, which I find clear and idiomatic.

Dec. 01 2011 10:55 PM
Amanda Schnall from NYC

Having seen the Behrens/Domingo/MacNeil Tosca more times than I care to admit, she does not pronounce it "Maui" - more like "muodi," with which I can't really find any fault. If I want to be totally uncharitable, at worst it sounds like mowwy. Is it authenic Italian? No, of course not. But nor is it butchery.

Honestly I can't fault her Italian pronunciation and I certainly don't hear the Marlene Dietrich/Barbara Walters comparison. At least it's no worse than any other non-Italian in the role.

If you're going to harp on her pronunciation, you may do better to do so with her French, of which there are more examples and which sounds far less idiomatic to me. It's no less lovely for it, but it does take some getting used to.

And, my own disclaimer: HB is basically my own personal musical lord and saviour, so...take my opinion for what it's worth, which is maybe nothing.

But for real Fred, it's hard to take you seriously when you hold up Deborah Voigt as an example of a singer with good German diction. Good lord, the woman has enough trouble getting the notes out, there is NO attention paid to the actual text. How can there be? Every note takes (or sounds like it takes) a herculean effort. Marilyn Horne is another that I would consider a mushmouth, among other problems.

It's all a matter of taste, but I can't abide terrible German diction. French and Italian, eh. It's easier to fudge those.

As for choral nouns/pronunciation - it's often (or should be) extremely precise, but it doesn't really work for soloists to do the same. As someone who has done a lot of choral singing and was a spectacular failure at solo singing, I know that of which I speak!

Dec. 01 2011 03:22 PM
Neil Schnall

Just a few comments:

"Lieder" is a German noun, and the first letter should be capitalized even in mid-sentence (even, in my opinion, when writing in English - otherwise, why not use "songs"?)

The final letter in "amore" should not contain a diphthong (or any kind of swimsuit). It is also unaccented. Thus, it is closer to "eh" than "ay", although the sound of the vowel may be closer to the first part of "ay" (before the diphthong, i.e.) than the possibly more open "eh".

Voigt has done numerous roles in German and ought to pronounce it well; but hearing her squawk through the final scene of "Salome" a few weeks ago on a radio broadcast of a live concert, it sounded to me like a mouthful of Kartoffelsalat (German potahto salad).

Dec. 01 2011 02:44 PM
Fred Plotkin

Michael M. makes a very good point about the challenge choruses face. I might, at some point, tease out that idea for a future posting. And Peter: I have not yet heard Terfel's recording. If he pronounces the word without the umlaut, as you describe, then all I can say is "False Teeth!"

Dec. 01 2011 02:41 PM
Michael Meltzer

MAK's reflection on Chomsky is reason to forgive a late learner for fluffs or an accent in extemporaneous conversation, where one is trying to speak as quickly as one can think.
It is another matter when the text in question is material that is studied and rehearsed well in advance, as per the job singers are paid to do.
You will often hear choruses pronounce more correctly than soloists because choristers have the additional requirement of having to all pronounce their vowels exactly the same way as each other, and at exactly the same time.
Soloists have it easy !

Dec. 01 2011 08:41 AM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

Because you pointed out Bryn Terfel's otherwise sterling linguistic ability, I must note that I was surprised to hear him, on his recent "Bad Boys" recording, mispronounce his German in "Mackie Messer". singing the opening line ("Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne"), he leaves out the umlaut and sings something like "tsAHnuh". These may not be teeth, after all, to a German!

Nov. 30 2011 12:19 PM

One, more serious thought on "manglings".
I remember studying hypotheses by Noam Chomsky and others, when I was in grad school, that suggested that there is a critical age to best learn a language and form sounds. ..and perhaps, there are neurological and physiological differences in early childhood from the way that an adult brain aquires language and the place in the brain where this occurs. Obviously, adults are able to learn & become fluent in other languages, but after a certain age, it just may be more physically difficult for some adults to learn a language and form certain sounds... which might partly explain why otherwise intelligent adults and political wannabes have "twubble".

Nov. 29 2011 06:54 PM
Deloss Brown from New York

Mmmmmm I yield to no one in my snobisme. But since opera has mostly stopped being sung in English, and since most Americans are ignorant of other languages, dies ist nicht sehr wichtig. I did enjoy it when in the (wonderful!) Mariinsky RING cycle the Russian singers referred to "der Rink." When I was working for that conservatory, they did a production of THE PLOW AND THE STARS. I found a version of "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" by the Red Army Chorus, in which they sang "It's a lonk way to Tipperary . . . but my gart's right there," but the Philistines in charge rejected it.

Nov. 29 2011 04:48 PM
Berta Calechman from Connecticut

Wonderful article as usual, Fred. And I'm still chuckling about "you say potayto, and I say potayto...." I do have a couple of observations. I've noticed that even the best Italian singers seem to have trouble remembering not to pronounce the final "e" on certain words in French, as "ay." Thus, in Carmen, we hear "..parlay moi day ma meray." And on the old RCA Victor recording of Boheme, tenor Jussi Bjoerling sings "..ruban tutti i joygelli..." in Che Gelida Manina." But as far as I'm concerned, Bjoerling could sing in pig latin, and it would still be glorious. And lastly, I think the singer with the best diction in any language he sang, was Nicolai Gedda. He never put a foot wrong! Okay, off my soapbox. But thank you again for a great read!

Nov. 28 2011 08:41 PM
Fred Plotkin from New York

Harvey makes a very good point and Concetta makes it too, without realizing. Tebaldi was trained to emit her most beautiful sound and sometimes the vowels (and, therefore, pronunciation) paid the price. The extreme example of this is my unnamed Roman soprano (and, before people start guessing, Barbara Frittoli is from Milan, Daniela Dessì is from Genoa and Patrizia Ciofi is from Florence.

Nov. 28 2011 02:09 PM
Concetta Nardone from Elmont

Fine article Mr. Plotkin. Thanks. Remember Ms.Behrens and her twubble with Italian. As for singers, in the past, Robert Merrill from Brooklyn's Italian was very good indeed. As was Richard Tucker's and Jan Peerce. Giuseppe DiStefano's diction was also very clear. As for Mr. Tucker, his Neopolitan was near perfect. Better than some Italian tenors.
Same for Placido. He sounds like he is from Naples when singing those great songs. The Russians seem to have the most trouble with Italian. As for the great Richard Tucker. I did not like his singing in Italian as he seemed to be too much in the back of the throat. Ah, but when he sang in French, the voice was free. Perhaps it was because of the correct nasal resonance. I occasionally could not understand Renata Tebaldi. Could it be she was more interested in beauty of tone. Beauty of tone she had. Again, fine article and amusing. Amusing is good.
Best wishes

Nov. 28 2011 01:30 PM
Harvey Steiman from San Francisco

One pet peeve is when singers willfully mispronounce vowels to make a "better" sound. I've seen many master classes where the teacher tells the student to set her mouth for the vowel that produces her richest sound (usually on a high note) but "think" the correct vowel. Sorry, it still sounds wrong.

Nov. 28 2011 12:22 PM

Pithy observations, Fred
.....although I admit, amongst the snoring, booing, ah-more-ay, candy rattling and shushing, the subtleties sometimes elude me.

Nov. 28 2011 11:57 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

To the commenters:
Javier: The woman was right next to me when she said "ethtamos." I noted it because it was unusual. Do you not acknowledge the possibility that she actually might have pronounced the word that way? Be careful when using adjectives such as "pompous," especially when paired with the word "critic," as that is a cliché.
Michael: very good points you make about vowels. Thanks for that.
Paul: Many people,especially English speakers, do a variation on Val-kuh-ree, because they read it as The Ride of the Valkyries. Italians pronounce it Val-KEE-ree-uh.

Nov. 28 2011 10:19 AM
Javier from New York

Nice article but, after making such a fuzz about how diction is so important, you could have paid a little bit more attention to what you allegedly say the woman at the Barcelona airport said on the phone... If she is from Spain, as I guess you were intending to imply by pointing out she pronounced Barcelona as Barthelona, she would have never said "ethtamos" as the "s" after the "t" would have been pronounced as a simple "s" sound. I was enjoying your article but must confess that that last comment made me see you as yet one more pompous critic of how things should be done who couldn't take enough time to pay attention to anything but his own opinion.

Nov. 28 2011 02:52 AM
Michael Meltzer

In the course of a lifetime of amateur choral singing, I've learned to decently pronounce a lot of languages I don't understand two words of, but I've noticed one thing that seems to escape a lot of others.
The vowels are the vehicles of the pitch and the vocal tone, so they get all the attention. BUT, in the languages whence they originate, they don't exist in a vacuum. The preceding consonant has a heavy influence on the shape of the mouth and therefore influences the forthcoming vowel. Many, many singers (and WQXR announcers) seem to attempt to faithfully reproduce the foreign vowel after an American consonant, and it just doesn't work,particularly with "R's" and "L's" which vary considerably from language to language in where the air stream is directed and how the mouth is shaped.
It may be harder at the outset to master all that extra detail, but it eventually makes the whole job a lot easier overall.

Nov. 28 2011 02:23 AM
Paul Pelkonen from Brooklyn NY

Even in covering opera as I do I'm guilty of this. I think (aside from my conscious choice to say "God-damn-erung" (an affectation) my biggest slipup is to say "Dee Valk-uh-ree." However, a friend's Russian father taught me how to say
"HhoVONschinHa" with that tricky glottal fricative.

Nov. 27 2011 10:45 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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