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Thread: Thoughts on language that opera is written in

          
   
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    Senior Member Involved Member Tardis's Avatar
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    Thoughts on language that opera is written in

    I will be honest, I have a hard time listening to some operas sung in German and English.
    I am hesitant to watch the Tempest because I saw a clip on YT and I didn't like it sung in English.
    I don't know, but with Italian, I can follow along with the pronunciation. I don't know Italian but I usually can follow along with a libretto and I can hear what words are being sung that way.
    But with English, when it's sung in opera, I can't follow along as well and I actually get lost understanding what's being sung.
    I remember watching Hansel and Gretel on TV years ago and having a difficult time with it.
    Why is that I can follow along an English musical but I have so much trouble with an English opera? Is there some difference in the way the music is sung or composed?

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tardis View Post
    I will be honest, I have a hard time listening to some operas sung in German and English.
    I am hesitant to watch the Tempest because I saw a clip on YT and I didn't like it sung in English.
    I don't know, but with Italian, I can follow along with the pronunciation. I don't know Italian but I usually can follow along with a libretto and I can hear what words are being sung that way.
    But with English, when it's sung in opera, I can't follow along as well and I actually get lost understanding what's being sung.
    I remember watching Hansel and Gretel on TV years ago and having a difficult time with it.
    Why is that I can follow along an English musical but I have so much trouble with an English opera? Is there some difference in the way the music is sung or composed?
    Yes, there is. Operatic singing gives different stresses to the words and prolongs vowels. Operatic singing in one's own language is not necessarily easier to understand than in a foreign language.

    I remember reading criticism of - exactly - a Hansel and Gretel sung in English with the hope that it would be easier for American children, and the commentary was - "well, to avoid the problem of English subtitles so that the children understand the German text, they're singing it in English so that now we need English subtitles so that the children understand the English text."

    Since musicals don't employ operatic singing (that's one of the main differences between musicals and operas) the lyrics are much easier to understand.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    This is the theory that I have developed as a ESOL teacher who specialises in pronunciation:

    A common explanation of why English doesn’t sounds good when sung is that we have a lot of vowel sounds, including nine diphthongs (like the sounds in toes, tourist, fine, here, hair etc), which simply don’t sound so attractive in song as the pure monophthongs of Italian.

    I think there is also another aggravating factor.

    English is a strongly stress-timed language - in spoken English the important content words are stressed – ie spoken louder, longer and higher in pitch than the unstressed grammar/helping words, and what’s more the stressed words are spoken at a roughly equal distance from each other, with the unstressed words squeezed in between.

    Looks a bit like this



    What’s more most of the vowels in unstressed English words are reduced, often to a very neutral sound called the schwa (the sound you hear in banana).

    Italian and French in contrast are syllable-timed, whereby each syllable is given more or less equal “speaking time”, and all vowels retain their full form. Looks a bit like this:



    This has two disadvantages for opera composers and singers:

    1. The rhythms that you can use in English are therefore more restricted; alternatively you may have to turn sentences around to fit a pre-set rhythm, which is in itself difficult because English has a relatively fixed word order. I reckon it must be harder to write an arching melody with a long legato line in English than in Italian because of these rhythmic restrictions. This could also interfere with comprehension as sentences with non-standard word order are naturally harder to understand.

    2. Also, and possibly more importantly, when English is sung operatically, more importance is given than would normally be to the unstressed grammar words, which are sung giving their vowels their full value, so that sung English can sound rather unnatural and stilted. As Alma says, this is in contrast to singing in musicals, which tends to allow for weak syllables to be properly unstressed.

    The artificial use of stress has an accompanying disadvantage for listeners. Native listeners of English typically listen for the stressed syllables of words and sentences to make sense of what they are hearing. Anything that interferes with this also interferes with understanding. Add to that the poetic nature of libretti, where you cannot always predict what you are likely to hear, (an essential component of listening comprehension), and you are left with a text that is much harder to understand.
    Natalie

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    Senior Member Top Contributor Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    "Italian is the proper language for opera; all educated people agree on that?" ... that quote came from a movie.

    My basic understanding is the larger amount of vowels in the Italian language; almost every second or third letter is one, as opposed to relatively "more" consonants in English words, or even more so in German.

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    Senior Member Involved Member Herkku's Avatar
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    30+ years ago operas here in Finland were always translated to Finnish, but it was a common joke to say that it doesn't matter in what language they sing, because it's incomprehensible anyway. Now, that isn't exactly true, but I share the Tardis' feeling of English sounding often rather odd in opera and I love Natalie's comprehensive answer. The Finnish language is much closer to Italian in it's pronunciation than English. We have issues of our own, like the Ä and Ö, which don't sound very nice.

    Completely beside the point, I love vowels, and I think they could use some more in Croatia, for example, where there is and island called Krk! I have had to learn some new ones, too, like the ı in Turkish and the Ы in Russian and the ő in Estonian, which happen to sound very much alike and are very difficult for the Finns to pronounce.

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    Senior Member Involved Member Bardamu's Avatar
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    Yeah, english is my less liked of the main languages for Operas.
    I appreciates very much how russian sound (even outside Opera).

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    Senior Member Involved Member Herkku's Avatar
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    Well, English is not my "less liked language" in any sense, but to demonstrate how easily the syllables and stresses fall in Finnish compared to Italian (as opposed to English), I would like to introduce some examples. They are not very operatic, I am afraid, but they should do the thing.



    [Link removed by Admin - video no longer available]

    To make it all the more interesting, I might add that "Olen suomalainen" means "I am a Finn". The Finnish language does not belong to the Romance languages like Italian, of course, but to the Finno-Ugric languages like Hungarian and Estonian.
    Last edited by Ann Lander (sospiro); January 7th, 2018 at 09:18 AM.

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    Opera Lively Moderator Top Contributor Member Soave_Fanciulla's Avatar
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    According to wiki, Finnish is syllable-timed like Italian and French, so that could be why it's easier to sing in.
    Natalie

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    Italian does have stress on syllables , and French tends to stress the last syllable. Not every French vowel is distinct, and the schwa is common as in English and German, unlike Italian or Spanish which lack this .
    Some languages, such as Hungarian, Finnish and Czech, have fixed stress on the first syllable, while Polish has it on the next to last. In Russian, it can fall on any syllable, which makes it very difficult to learn. It often occurs on the syllable you least expect !
    Languages always sound best in the original language ; they tend to sound odd in the wrong one. Italian is perfect for Italian opera, but Wagner sounds very strange in it . There are a number of recordings of Wagner excerpts, mostly from long ago by some once famous Italian opera singers ,in Italian, and some in French by French singers.
    French is also perfect for French opera, Russian for Russian etc.
    The apparent lack of vowels in Serbo-Croatian and Czech is an illusion; there are actually indistinct vowels between them in the spoken language.
    Georgian, which is as different from the Slavic languages as Basque is from Spanish and may actually be distantly related to it , has the craziest consonant clusters , way beyond even the Slavic languages, plus glottalized consonants, such as p,k, t, pronounced by constricting the glottis so the consonant literally explodes out of the mouth !
    Circassian, which is spoken to the north of the republic of Georgia in the Caucasus, is the weirdest of all .
    It has more different consonant phonemes that almost any other language , about 60-70 !
    It sounds more like Klingon than a human language , and sounds like someone talking with his mouth full of food !
    It's filled with hissing,rasping, gurgling, whistling and buzzing sounds , and lots of glottalized consonants . Its far more guttural than German, Dutch or Arabic .
    In addition, it has about only two vowels , mainly the schwa !

  10. #10
    Schigolch
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    I don't have any problem to enjoy Wagner sung in Italian... or Verdi sung in German, for that matter.

    In this thread, there are a few examples of arias being sung in a different language than the one originally used by the composer:

    http://operalively.com/forums/showth...not-in-Italian

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    Senior Member Top Contributor Member HarpsichordConcerto's Avatar
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    I do, I'm afraid. Translating the original language of the sung text into another not approved by the composer is a big no-no.

  12. #12
    Schigolch
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    Before the surtitles, many performances were given in the language of the theater. And every composer was aware of this fact, and nobody really cared that much. For sure, the vast majority of them "approved" of this.... even if only on practical grounds.

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    Senior Member Involved Member Herkku's Avatar
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    The oddest of my operatic experiences have been a performance in Helsinki of Rigoletto with a visiting Italian tenor, but everyone else singing in Finnish, and another one of Luisa Miller in Tallinn, with a visiting Latvian or Lithuanian soprano singing in Italian, while all the rest was in Estonian. Times have changed, but it wasn't uncommon some thirty years ago. Finnish shares many words with Estonian that we can at least recognize, but to complicate things, there are also some that look familiar but mean something completely different. Like the Finnish word for government, "hallitus", which means "mold" or "mildew" in Estonian. There could be some hidden irony here... The Estonian word for wedding, "pulmat", means "problems" in Finnish.

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    Hi all!
    So how does German come out in the above analysis? Is it similar to English and stress-timed? If so, how was this addressed by Wagner in his librettos? (Does alliteration play into Wagner's style?)

  15. #15
    Senior Member Veteran Member Aksel's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Sacramento Johnson View Post
    Hi all!
    So how does German come out in the above analysis? Is it similar to English and stress-timed? If so, how was this addressed by Wagner in his librettos? (Does alliteration play into Wagner's style?)
    Wagner loved alliteration. Stabreim, the form in which he wrote the poems for his operas is a form of alliterative verse, so it does feature rather heavily.

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