Thursday, September 4, 2008

Lost in Translation

The other day I posted about Rufus Wainwright withdrawing his opera from the Met. While I was more concerned about the sad news, and how his addition to the repetoire could help make opera attractive to a younger generation, I got to thinking about the reason why this opera was withdrawn.

It had to do with language. Wainwright had intended to first compose the opera in French and then translate it into English but soon realized that the words and music were too intertwined to be changed. The Met felt that"“presenting a new opera that is not in English at the Met, when it could be in English, is an immediate impediment to its potential success with audiences.”

This got me thinking about presenting operas in English instead of their native language.

Essayist H.L. Mencken once said opera in English was as "sensible as baseball in Italian" (not being a baseball fan myself, I can't help but think Italian might help improve the sport) but I wonder if it makes opera more attractive to potential audiences, especially younger audiences that lack a structured introduction to the arts.

We here at San Diego Opera rarely change the opera's language into English and I can only recall two instances in recent times that we've done this: Die Fledermaus and Wozzeck. The reason behind both of these decisions was to create an immediacy of the text for our audiences. Much of the humor in Die Fledermaus borders on slapstick and any delay in the line being sung, and the audience reading it on the supertitle system, would ruin the pacing of the piece. Now I've seen Die Fledermaus in both German and English and to be honest the English worked just fine for me.

The decision for Wozzeck was similar. We always looked at Wozzeck as a theatrical experience and hired an established theatrical director to direct it. For me, Wozzeck toed the line of a sung play. I felt it worked fine in English although it lost some of its guttural edge that it has in the original German.

In the end I thought both decisions to present these operas in English was smart. But for me, I think the decision to perform the majority of our operas in their original language is even smarter.

Still, there is opera in English and it seems to be flourishing. Chandos Records has an entire imprint dedicated to Opera in English (some of it quite good), Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents all of their operas in English (much of it quite good). There are many others of course.

So I wonder, does presenting an opera in English take something out of the piece? Is something lost in translation? Or does the art form need to make some concessions in order to make it more accessible to the next generation of opera lovers and supporters?

- Edward


Felicia Mehl said...

It doesn't bother me to hear operas translated into English, although I prefer the original language because the translated words sometimes don't fit the music. So in that sense, I can understand why Wainwright didn't want to do the translation.

Translations aside, I think it would be nice if new operas written in English (such as The End of the Affair and others) were performed more regularly and had more support from opera houses and audiences. Instead of doing yet another La Boheme or Don Giovanni, I'd love to see some new American opera.

Sonette said...

While I tend to prefer hearing operas in the original language, I do see the value and enjoy hearing them in English and other translaions. Consider works commissioned in languages other than the composer's native tongue including Verdi's Jerusalem, Don Carlos, Le Trouvere or Les Vespres Siciliennes. Or Rossini's Guillaume Tell. Or Donizetti's Lucie de Lammermoor. And how about Ligeti's Le Grande Macabre, which I have heard was intended by the composer to be performed in the language of the audience?