Opera in the original language…

I had always seen (and heard) Carmen performed in French, at least in my native Teatro Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires, that is, until I came to London …

For my first visit to the ENO (where operas are performed in English-language versions) I thought I had gone along psychologically prepared (to hear it sung in another language) but I found, to my dismay, that I couldn´t stop wincing. The text contained so many instances of “There!”, “See!”, “Look!”, where the vocal sound and music didn´t match. Obviously these were “gap fillers”.

You might put this down to just a botched translation. But any music which has been set to one language by a skilful composer is extremely difficult to adapt to another language: the composer has chosen the right notes for the right length of syllables, to complement the vowels and other sounds of the text, and often the speed and the rise and fall of the words as they would sound if spoken. With opera in translation you break this deep connection; you keep the music, of course, but you paste other words and sounds that, however good they may be as a translation, do not necessarily have the same number of syllables or the rights vowels in the right place. So it´s very difficult to match this music-text symbiosis in another language.

So what’s the point of ENO doing operas in English translation? To make the text comprehensible to everybody even if this symbiosis is broken and the original ideal balance between music and text is not always there.

But some operas have a big orchestra and singers sometimes have to struggle to make themselves heard. When you add this to the challenge of communicating a translated text the results can be unpredictable, to say the least. I remember a wonderful Tristan and Isolde at ENO. But the singers might as well have been singing in Swahili for all I knew, as not even native English speakers with me could figure out the sung words.

So it seems to me there’s very little point in translating an opera text unless you are doing it for a young audience who may find it hard to follow another language or surtitles. Hansel and Gretel is a good example of a popular opera of this kind (even so I prefer it sung in the original German!).

Well, then, what can we reasonably expect to translate in an opera, without too much being sacrificed in the process?

We can translate the recitativi (for example, those in Mozart’s Zauberflöte and Entführung, and in Bizet’s Carmen). Why? Well, because in recitative the singer is allowed to follow the rhythms of everyday speech.

In recitativo secco, so-called “dry recitative” (as in Rossini’s Barbiere, for example) the music is just a chord supporting the text.

But you may say that opera translation is a good thing. Well then, imagine for a moment Britten, Britten sung in Italian … Why not then?  Try for example “Il giro di vite” (The Turn of the Screw)

You may not agree with my overall argument here, for two alternative points of view have a look at these interesting articles