Language in Opera Singing
by Cathleen McGowan
As an opera singer, people comment that I must know a lot of languages. I wish I did, but currently I speak and understand two languages fluently: English and not-English. Not-English is a hybrid of the languages I’ve studied and is nearly incomprehensible outside of my own brain. However, I sing in many, and potentially all languages (my current performance tally is 24). Most operas were originally composed in Italian, German, French, or English. What I mainly need to know about a language is how to pronounce the words and what the words mean in the song. And if I am in a production with others, I will need to know what the others are singing as well, so I know what’s going on and how to act.
The music should help a lot to guide performers as to the meaning of the song. The emotional meaning is there in the music. Puccini is an example of a composer who did this well. As an opera and art song singer, I want to know the meaning of every word, so I can play with my interpretation more. Many times, when I’ve had a choice, I have chosen a song because I wanted to perform the words.
I translate, word for word. I can’t hold a conversation in German, but I know that, for example, “Laß dich bewegen. Verschone mich!” means literally “Let you move. Spare me!” Since that sounds a bit strange in English, I do some more digging on the words to have them make more sense in the whole sentence, “Let yourself be moved,” as the character, with this line, is begging to be saved from torment.
After translating, I study the musical phrasing, the meaning of the words and how those relate to each other, so I know ways I can interpret the song. In this, I try to find the intention of the composer, which sometimes can give hidden meanings as to the characters’ intentions, whether the music matches the overt words the character is saying or suggests something else. (Mozart operas are full of this!)
When learning new music, I usually concentrate on the pitches and rhythms first. I can sing on a vowel that I choose, like ee, and after I know the pronunciation of the words, I can sing the vowels of the words and add the consonants later. In classical singing, we sing phrases on the vowels anyway. International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a written pronunciation guide that singers learn. It equates alphabetical (and other) symbols with their sounds. It helps when communicating with others as to what the pronunciation is. For example, the word foot is written fʊt. The word food is fud. When working on my own, I have my personal system for writing down the pronunciation.
Even when singing in one’s native language, there is much to consider in how we pronounce the words. Were the words written by, or is the character, someone from England? The U.S.? Scotland? And what region of the country were they from? If the song is part of a larger work, where did the composer set it? I wouldn’t pronounce a Shakespeare sonnet in the same way as an E. E. Cummings poem. I end up treating the pronunciation of English like it was a foreign language.
The physical mechanics of the human voice and the notes themselves also determine the pronunciation. If I’m in my upper register (singing in the high part of my voice), the vowels often need to be modified so that I can produce a sound that people will actually want to hear. For example, the ai diphthong in the word quaint in Benjamin Britten’s aria “Come Now a Roundel” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sung as ay at the beginning of the phrase, but then, because it jumps to a high C-sharp, it changes to ah and when the phrase descends back into the middle register, it will change back to ay. In singers’ upper registers, the words often become indecipherable. This is one reason sub-, super-titles, or printed words and translations are so helpful for audiences, even if the opera is in their native language.
My extent of so many languages is limited to the songs I sing. With time and effort, I might be able to generalize those words into spoken conversation, but actually learning those foreign languages would always be more beneficial!
Art/photo credits by: “Phantom of the Opera” by Grampasso (Switzerland) and “Rook at the Opera” by Ceredwyn (Australia) both Deviantart.com