April 22, 2004 (Ira Pilgrim)

Words and Music

I do not mind what language an opera is sung in so long as it is a language I don't understand.

Sir Edward Appleton

Some time ago, at the Willits Community Theater, I saw a performance of one act of Carlisle Floyd's opera Susannah. Ellen Drell sang the title role. I found it very moving. The music supported the words. Recently, I heard a recorded performance of that same opera with opera superstar Renee Fleming singing the same role. I couldn't understand the words even though English is my, and her, native language. I can't understand her French either.

I have the same problem with British opera singer Joan Sutherland. Steven Schwartz, who has a radio program called The Opera Attic on KCHO, interviewed her for his program. He mentioned to her that some people have trouble understanding her words. She replied to the effect that people didn't pay to hear the words. I recently heard some songs sung by Dame Janet Baker. I couldn't understand what she was singing either. I assume that Joan Sutherland was just following in the tradition of British sopranos. No one mentioned that there are many instruments in the orchestra that could do as good a job with the music, or better, but that it wouldn't be song singing.

I have come to the conclusion that if there were such a thing as a press-agent's Oscar, that Fleming's press agent would be in line for the prize. She was featured in a segment of 60 Minutes, which is a guarantee of celebrity. She speaks fluent American. Why can't she sing it?

I have often wondered what I would do if I forgot the words to a song during a concert. Fleming and Sutherland have solved the problem. If they forget the words they just have to mumble anything. The audience wouldn't know the difference. It's a great ploy. The only problem is that, in musical theater, the words are an integral part of the work. Of course the music can stand by itself, but then it wouldn't be an opera or a musical.

Many opera fans put up with the often heavily accented English of opera singers to whom English is not their native language. The same is true of Italian singers and their French or German. However, tenor Placido Domingo's French is easily understandable and his German is impeccable. French-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna's English is without accent, as is that of his Romanian wife. If a tenor can do it, why can't an American or English soprano? The answer is that they can and do. Beverly Sills' every word was clear in both English and French, and probably Italian as well.

Only an American audience would put up with poor diction in the language of the country where a work is being performed. All German singers, and Placido Domingo, sing impeccable German.

American opera goers are so used to not understanding the words, and reading the translations, that even if the opera is in English they don't seem to notice. A musical in which the words are unintelligible wouldn't last a week on Broadway, or anywhere else. The only reason why it is tolerated in an opera is because American opera goers seem to be willing to pay big bucks for what are essentially songs without understandable words.

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