FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
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?