I can’t live without rehearsals


Having worked as a translator and librettist for English language performances of more than fifty operas, I can honestly say that some of my happiest working hours have been spent in rehearsal rooms. Observing and participating as the production takes shape in a concentrated few weeks has given me the most privileged opportunities to learn about singing and the whole panoply of preparing and performing opera, and if I’ve become any better at my job, it is entirely thanks to the generosity and experience of the directors, conductors and singers I’ve worked with.

The ball usually rolls off with a music rehearsal and there I sit in the corner, listening to professionals singing my translation – I can never quite believe my luck. My first experience of this was at ENO in a tiny room with the cast of Don Giovanni. I thought the roof was going to fly away. Next, I found myself in an even smaller room with (an extremely young) Paul Daniel coaching Josephine Barstow. After years of university and music college work this was something in quite another league.

An early trial by fire was in 1986 when I first went to Leeds for David Freeman’s em>Bohèmerehearsals with Elgar Howarth conducting. I got lost between the station and the rehearsal room and arrived slightly dishevelled and very late. No one took a lot of notice of me until there was a problem with the words. What exactly did I mean by my translation of… .? The room stood still and focussed on me. Then I was daunted, good ideas don’t always abound under pressure, but now, after years of experience, such moments are an exhilarating challenge and, when the answer comes, the relief is a bit like answering a baffling crossword clue.

I like to spend the first two weeks of rehearsals sitting in the corner, making adjustments when required and sometimes having ideas myself for improvements. And then I try to keep away, as the singers have enough to deal with without worrying about the words, until stage rehearsals are underway and I can be in the theatre making sure the words are `going over’. But, please note, audiences have an unfair habit of assuming they must be able to hear the words if they’re in English – they’re not so bothered if they’re in a `foreign’ language. Some voices naturally project better then others and no composer ever expected his audience to hear every word. If they did Handel and Mozart could have left out all those repeats and Verdi would never have included a nonet in Falstaff with nine different rhyming verses.

In the old days, translations were free-for-alls in rehearsals. If the translator wasn’t about, everyone would put in their ha’penny worth and the end result was quite a patchwork, but now attitudes have changed for the better. There is more respect for the art, and it is an art, and it’s more widely recognised that translations are copyright. Music staff always consult me about proposed adjustments and I have the right of veto, but singers often have wonderful ideas which I gratefully adopt. (Ménage à trois’ for `Un paio in tre’ in Falstaff was not my idea). There’s always a sense of ensemble work at such times and I’m convinced that the whole process makes for a better show. In the next life I’d like to be a fly on the wall at ENO’s rehearsal space, Lilian Baylis House.

Opera, August 2002, p.1028