The Problem with Opera in English

Email a Friend

I recall, from quite a few years ago, a conversation with the wonderful American mezzo-soprano Mignon Dunn, in which she was asked to discuss why she preferred singing in some languages more than others. Dunn, who now is a marvelous teacher of young artists, responded (and I paraphrase), “Italian is the most beautiful and natural for the voice. German can be beautiful too and French requires a special style and sensitivity. I guess I should say I like to sing in English but, truth be told, honey, I love that Russian.”

I thought of Dunn’s zesty observation recently when I attended Thomas Adès’s The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera. This opera is in English, with the text being described as “Libretto by Meredith Oakes, after William Shakespeare.” This is the second opera based on this play to come to the Met lately. The Enchanted Island, which had its world premiere in January, also drew magical inspiration from Shakespeare’s Tempest.

If you have been reading Operavore for more than a year, you will recall that I did a series about opera and Shakespeare in the summer of 2011, which covered, among other works, The Winter’s Tale. Just recently, when attending Otello, I realized again how Verdi brilliantly took the emotions behind the words and the story and put them in music. I suppose this is the greatest Shakespeare opera of all, but I am open to dissent from readers.

There were many things I enjoyed in Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, especially the music. Robert LePage’s production was original and quite congruent with the story as narrated in the music. The cast, led by Simon Keenlyside, was outstanding. I look forward to seeing this opera again in HD on November 10.

I was also struck by Oakes’s libretto. I am used to Shakespeare operas that are quite poetical even when translated into other languages. I certainly don’t think that her unusual text is due to an absence of skill but, rather, a conscious decision to have rhymes that are just a bit askew. Perhaps Adès wanted this as well. Here are some I jotted down during the performance: ravage/wreckage/damage; story/sorry; reef/deep; shells/kelp; loiter/daughter; understand/Caliban.

During the intermission, several people came up to me and asked if I had noticed the rhyme sequences. While they found them disturbing, I was more intrigued. Clearly this was done intentionally to catch the ear. It certainly did and I found that I paid more attention to the text than I might have otherwise done. The words stood just a bit apart from the music and, curiously, I was able to hear the music more as a result. Normally, in opera and in song, words and music blend in magical and beguiling ways. Think of Mozart, the bel canto composers, Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. I do not speak Russian but, in thinking about what Mignon Dunn said, I think the language sounds beautiful in Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky because the music is composed to be carried by the vowels.

It struck me that opera in English is particular, and often challenging, because our vowels are not always beautiful and unfriendly consonants tend to intrude. By contrast, German might sound a bit harsher when spoken but is embraced by music because composers often take advantage of the vowels in music in ways that German speakers do not. Listen to this aria from Tannhäuser, paying attention to the arching vowels, and you will know what I mean. Thomas Quasthoff sings with exemplary diction, and you can notice the Z in certain words and he completes words that end in the letter T without crashing into it. Rather, it is a moment for a quiet breath for the singer and an instant of reflection for the character and for the audience.

Italian is most accommodating for the voice because the vowels seem to be an extension of speech. Consider Luciano Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland in Rigoletto. I want you to listen to how natural the vowels sound, especially in the much-repeated word addio. The ah, the ee and the oh of addio are perfectly ensconced in Verdi’s music. The words and music belong to one another. If this, and many other Italian words, ended in a hard consonant, it would be harder. This is why many people think the pronunciation of the name of the title character of Puccini’s last opera should be Toor-AN-doh. In fact, it is Toor-AN-dote, as Calaf defiantly sings to answer one of the riddles. Think instead of the vowel sequence in a line by the Mandarin: “Popolo di Pechino, la legge è questa...” There are four incidences of the letter O followed by four examples of the letter E, bookended by two uses of A (pronounced AH).

When I was a toddler I required the services of a speech therapist. While children can produce vowels without too much difficulty, consonants can be very difficult and mastering each of them is a victory hard won. My teacher found that she could get more results through singing than speaking. One of the hardest songs was, of all things, "Old MacDonald had a Farm.” After producing a sequence of consonants you practically bray those famous ee-ay-ee-ay-oh vowels.

The next song I was taught was “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. For a child it was a big step forward because the S and the T in the title required the tongue to touch the roof of the mouth behind the center teeth while the intervening M's require the lips to close. For someone to whom this comes naturally, it is never thought about. But every singer must, in looking at words and music, consider ways of expression that are both clear but also dramatically persuasive and musical.

Compare how two sublime singers, Ella Fitzgerald and Leontyne Price sing this song. Both caress the vowels, though Fitzgerald places slightly more emphasis on the consonants than does Price. She makes distinct the double M in summer and the single M in time. Price makes gorgeous use of the vowels, as would an opera singer. Compare it to what you just heard Thomas Quasthoff do.

I do not wish to imply that consonants in English are ugly but rather that our language has its own aesthetic. For example, “I Wonder as I Wander” brings a plethora of consonants, with Ws, hard Rs, the combined ND sound and many S's. It is no less beautiful because of this, but its beauty resides elsewhere than in the chief operatic languages.

Which brings me back to the libretto of The Tempest. It is beautiful, not in a Shakespearean way, but because it invites interest, focus and concentration. It might not be the ideal vessel for the music of Thomas Adès, but the pleasure of his music is that it is bracing on its own terms while allowing the text to also make a statement. In a way, this is what we want opera to be.