Words for Music

This article appeared in MAGMA POETRY, issue 58, published in spring 2014


When we talk, or listen to speech, the process is involuntary and entirely natural. At the theatre, naturally we expect to be able to hear the words and make sense of what’s happening and, after all, audience comes from audire (meaning: to hear). Speech in a foreign language will demand more attention, and not all the words will be intelligible. For this reason plays are usually translated and, if a translation is fluent and apt, there is no need for the audience to be aware that they are hearing a translation.

In an opera house, things are entirely different, listening is a more complex process. Music drives the shows, and it’s the music, not the words, that usually sticks in the mind. Operas are `by’ their composers and very few librettists’ names are known, although Mozart was probably at his best with da Ponte, Sullivan didn’t add up to much without Gilbert, and Rodgers’ greatest hits were mostly to lyrics by Hammerstein. But the idea of words versus music has sometimes been worth discussing: Richard Strauss, in his anachronistic last opera, Capriccio, discussed the subject head-on, while Antonio Salieri even used the title Prima la musica… poi le parole… for a satirical operetta in which librettist and composer come to blows.

The words in opera provide the framework upon which the work is built. And because singing is a more complicated activity than speaking, the words of librettos and their translations must first of all be technically comfortable for the singer. Secondly, they must clearly `go over’ to the listeners in a large space – along with their music. Writing for opera and for singers is tricky – one is almost stepping through a metaphorical minefield – and quite a few operas have survived in spite of their awkward texts but, though that situation is far from ideal, that just proves the Prima la musica argument.

From the audience perspective, ‘Going to the opera’ may mean hearing a repertoire piece you assume you already know – La bohème, Carmen, Aida – and if not a quick look at a synopsis will remind you of the plot. It’s unlikely that you’ll hear all of the words, especially so if they’re not in your native language. There isn’t much time to consider them; too much is happening, so it’s best if they’re clear and direct. Some assume that surtitles now solve the problems, but they both add another dimension and cut corners. Comment is seldom made of the way they devalue both the work and the audience experience. They are seldom truly elegant, and drive a bulldozer through any skill – let alone detail, subtlety, shape and style – in the original text. Singers cannot communicate directly with an audience that is constantly reading something else, above the stage, and comedy is impossible; if the audience laughs, it’ll be at the titles and not the timing of the production. In opera, words are to be heard and not seen.

The theory, that theatre in the language of the audience communicates most directly, is supported by the fact that composers have always wanted their works to be performed in the language of their audience. Handel, living in London, wrote all his oratorios in English, to be sung by the people, wheras his operas, written for The Opera of the Nobility, are in Italian. Mozart’s Die Entführung and Die Zauberflöte were intentionally written for German speaking audiences (rather than upper-class audiences who expected Italian in the tradition of grand opera). Donizetti and Verdi wrote their Parisian commissions to French librettos – e.g. La fille du régimentand Les vêpres siciliennes – and Verdi himself commissioned translations of his Italian works when they were performed outside Italy. At Wagner’s instruction, the first Lohengrin in Australia was in English, and the greatest British opera composer,
Benjamin Britten, said: ‘I believe passionately in the intelligibility of the words – opera being a fusion of music, acting, painting and poetry, of which the last named
demands to be understood. Because I do not speak Italian, it was not until I heard Mozart and Verdi opera sung in English that I realized to the full their fabulous subtelty, wit and dramatic aptitude.I always encourage my works to be sung, abroad, in the vernacular, even pieces like the Spring Symphony and the em>Nocturne, which contain some of the greatest English poetry. Of course something is lost, but not a great deal when you substitute the gibberish which can result from singers using languages they do not understand and cannot pronounce’. (On Writing English Opera, 1960).

In the 1950s and ’60s opera was performed in English – except at Glyndebourne, many of whose staff came from ‘the continent’ after the war. I was taken to all kinds of musical shows by enthusiastic relatives – those were the days of Gilbert & Sullivan, My Fair Lady, with Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway), Flanders & Swann, Julian Slade’s Salad Days etc. There were so many memorable and singable lyrics that I loved, but those for opera did rather often seem clunky. It is a little surprising to think that this lyric for Papageno’s entrance in The Magic Flute passed muster for hundreds of performances: ‘A fowler bold in me you see, a man of mirth and minstrelsy’. And at Covent Garden I heard Carmen (and didn’t like it much) – these words still haunt me:

‘Toreador en garde, Toreador!
Bear thou in mind when combat thee elates,
Two dark eyes fondly regard thee
And love is your reward…’.

from the French:
‘Toréador, en garde! Toréador, Toréador!
Et songe bien, oui, songe en combattant
Qu’un oeil noir te regarde,
Et que l’amour t’attend…’.

I now recoil in horror to hear the inversion (line 2), the non-rhyme (lines 2 & 4), the awkward stress (line 2 on ‘-lates’) and the two disgraceful added syllables (line 3, on ‘ly re-‘) that require extra notes – not by Bizet!

Maybe this is a bit clearer…
‘Toreador be ready, Toreador!
And think of this before you draw your sword,
two dark eyes watch you fight
and love is your reward.’
(AH: 2001)

Take Che gelida manina – literally What an icy little hand – that familiar moment in act I of Puccini’s La bohème -, we use five words for seven syllables where the elegant Italian needs only three words. The old translation, Your tiny hand is frozen, isn’t forgotten. But to my ears (not eyes) that isn’t such a brilliant solution. The Italian, beautifully set by Puccini (he set words innately), has accents on cold and hand, – ge– and –ni-. The old English therefore accents ti– (tiny) and fro– (frozen) – so there’s no stress on hand – the most important word. Modern solutions such as ‘How cold this little hand is…’ or ‘This hand of yours is freezing’ aren’t perfect (perfection in translation is elusive) but at least they put the musical accents on the two important words and echo the original.

Here’s another example: this answer from Alice Ford to Falstaff’s saucy proposal is from the English translation commissioned by Verdi himself from William Beatty Kingston for the British premiere of Falstaff at Covent Garden in 1894. It works with the music but one can’t imagine it sung today (and there’s an extra syllable in line 2, on ‘never’).

‘On me all gauds would seem unsightly
To flaunt in silks I never propose.
I wear a kerchief knotted lightly
A simple girdle, a fragrant rose.’

And – about a century later – a newer version, still with a whiff of Shakespeare.

I know that precious jewels don’t suit me
And gold’s a power that I abhor,
I’ll wear this veil resolutely,
Perhaps a flower, I ask no more.

(AH: 1987)

And here’s the original:
Ogni più bel gioiel mi nuoce
e spregio il finto idolo d’or.
Mi basta un vel legato in croce,
un fregio al cinto e in testa un fior.

Boito took his cue from this short sentence in the play The Merry Wives of Windsor: ‘A plain kerchief, Sir John: my brows become nothing else; nor that well either.’ Extraordinary; but Boito understood what Verdi needed.

Opera translation is a practical skill in which elegance and poetry persistently get jumped off the top of the agenda. A lot else takes priority: being faithful to the flavour of the original libretto, in shape, sense, rhythm, stress, timbre (sound of the words); including vowels and phrasing, breathing opportunities that suit the singing voice and also attempts to echo the style of the original, not forgetting the important rhymes that give the sound a certain kind of energy. It’s best not to use closed vowels that a hard to sing, or colloquialisms (they will jump out and put fluency out of kilter). Words (night/knight, beech/beach) and expressions that might have a double meaning and anything that might prompt an audience to laugh at the wrong moment are no-go areas. As music itself is inexplicable in words, I can only say that if something poetic emerges from the melding of words and music that’s great, but the practicality of the work and its need for immediacy and clarity take priority. It’s a hard task, and the constant rhyming, usually a given in librettos up to the end of the 19th century, will make the task take twice as long as it otherwise might.

Great librettos are fairly unusual. Not much attention is usually paid to them, but comparing Figaro and Tosca to their sources is instructive. Beaumarchais’ play The Marriage of Figaro and Victorien Sardou’s Tosca are seldom performed now but comparison with their corresponding librettos shows how little, after a lot of cutting and much skilful reorganising, they correspond to the originals. There is hardly a quote from either in their librettos. Boito worked from an Italian translation of Shakespeare and Falstaff is gleaned from Henry IV, Parts I & II as well as The Merry Wives of Windsor; very few actual phrases words from the original sources are used which is just as well – for a British audience Shakespeare’s totemic language is perhaps too great and too demanding to be dominated by music.

A librettist has to face more or less the same responsibilities as a translator, though there is a more daunting level of freedom to face. A translator must know the work inside-out, text and music, before starting the job, but the librettist starts with a blank sheet and has to assist the composer too. As in writing a play or fiction, there comes a time when the characters take on a life of their own; then the source book is put back on the shelf and something individual takes over. Mozart and da Ponte’s Figaro is a different man to Beaumarchais’ hero. With very few exceptions – Büchner’s Wozzeck and Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande are the most famous examples – a libretto that is a ‘boiled-down’ play doesn’t usually cater for the special needs of opera.

Opera functions on myriad levels. Writing the words is a crucial part of the work’s creation, and creating something entirely different or new out of a marvellous (or less marvellous) source is the challenge. After the intellectual puzzle, the responsibility to the composer, performers and audiences – there is then likely to be further work in rehearsals, tailoring the piece with singers and conductors, directors etc. In the case of a new work, several years may elapse between conception and premiere. Hearing and watching the finished article can seem miraculous at the end of such a journey, but it’s only really gratifying if the audience has a good time. The responsibility for that is the composer’s, but the audience will most truly rewarded if they have heard and understood (some of) the words.