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The language question

I’m currently visiting friends in San Francisco. Yesterday, a cab we were taking happened to pass the opera house. Banners proudly advertised the upcoming season, which included Verdi’s A Masked Ball. I mused aloud about why they used the English title rather than the Italian one, and how they decided. (Is it by how well-known the original opera title is? I suspect La traviata is rarely translated. Of course, it would be a difficult title to translate. Perhaps that’s the true deciding factor, which would explain why Così fan tutte, despite not being among the ten most-performed operas, is usually advertised in Italian.)

‘They do perform the operas in the original language here, right?’ I asked my friend.

‘Of course!’ He seemed shocked that I would suggest anything to the contrary.

But local-language rather than original-language opera is not so uncommon. Near London, where I spent the past year, only the Royal Opera House and several of the summer opera festivals consistently perform in Italian, German, French, Czech, and Russian. English National Opera, London’s other major house, performs everything in English translation. So did the student groups at Cambridge (much to my frustration). The justification given was that it made the operas more accessible to English-speaking audiences and also improved the performance quality, because English-speaking singers could connect to the text better. (Never mind that most of us who were singing fairly seriously were quite proficient in other major operatic languages!) ENO has a page on their website that summarizes this line of thought pretty well.

Chandos has an 'Opera in English' label.

Chandos has an ‘Opera in English’ label.

Their explanation also points out the historical tradition of translating operas: until relatively recently, it was common in many European countries to use the local language. Some operas even have different versions for different languages, where the original composer worked on both (for instance, Verdi’s Don Carlo / Don Carlos). There are letters on file from famous composers (Verdi to Paris, about Otello; Wagner to Melbourne, about Lohengrin) insisting that their operas be presented in the local language rather than the original. Of course, in places like America where this tradition did not hold, the proliferation of different language versions led to some odd fads. For much of the Met’s existence, they presented Russian operas in French! (One wonders how they handled, say, the French aria in Eugene Onegin—it can’t have seemed quite as ridiculous with the rest of the opera in the same language.)

Such silliness aside, I tend to prefer original-language productions. As a singer, I find the text more poetic and easier to sing—I have rarely encountered translations that captured the rhythm, rhyme, assonance, and pure sing-ability (determined by things like which vowel shapes fall on which notes) of the originals. The greatest opera composers understood the voice and knew what they were doing; modern professional translators undoubtedly do too, but the old, free translations that many local and student groups turn to are simply awful. (Try singing ‘Tell me, fair ladies, what stirs my heart. / You know young Cupid, is this his dart? / You-u know young Cu-u-pi-id, is thi-is hi-is dart?’ to the opening melody of ‘Voi, che sapete,’ and you’ll see what I mean.) As an audience member who happens to know the major operatic languages, I don’t have any trouble following operas sung in the original language. (Some people complain about the horrible pronunciation of singers, but I haven’t found that to be the case, even when I don’t have supertitles to guide me. In fact, Italian is a lot easier to decipher when sung than English is.) I recognize that most audience members don’t have quite my language repertoire, but I was an opera fan even before I studied Italian, German, and French, and I always found the supertitles sufficient to keep me engaged.

In the end, I think there is room in the operatic world for both conventions (though I’ll be patronizing the original-language companies almost exclusively). Singers, audience members, and directors will never entirely agree about what’s best, and that’s fine, as long as there are enough operatic opportunities to give them a choice. But a note to managers of companies large and small: For everyone’s sake, if you dare to perform a translated opera, please ensure that the translation is excellent. If you can’t find or afford that, the original language and supertitles are the better path.