Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Disappointment at the opera

I don't consider myself a huge opera buff, but I've loved Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) since I was a teenager. When I found out that Opera San José---a group whose musicians I've worked with from time to time---was performing it this month, I leaped at the opportunity to see it. I'm a big proponent of enjoying art (vocal works, poetry, movies) in its original language whenever possible, and the website promised "Sung in German, with English supertitles."

I was shocked, therefore, when Tamino uttered his desperate plea, "Ach, schützet mich!" and fell over in a faint, only to emerge from this state speaking English. HUH? Apparently, only the songs were to be presented in German; all dialogue had been translated and was spoken in English. The effect to me was jarring, and I felt a mental grinding, as of changing gears in a car without a fully depressed clutch, every time there was a transition between music and dialogue. It didn't ruin my experience, but my enthusiasm for the performance was undoubtedly dampened.

During the intermission, I asked a staff member why this was done and she told me that it was pretty standard. "If you see this opera in France, they'll do the dialogue in French." I've since confirmed with my friends across the Atlantic that this is indeed common. But my question is, why? The Wikipedia entry for "Libretto" provides a clue:
Just as with literature and song, the libretto has its share of problems and challenges with translation. In the past (and even today), foreign musical stage works with spoken dialogue, especially comedies, were sometimes performed with the sung portions in the original language and the spoken dialogue in the vernacular. However, this reinforces the idea that the words to the songs do not matter, a common misconception in those who do not really understand musicals or operettas.
(Yes, there's some editorializing on the part of the author here, with which I happen to agree.) I understand that opera arias are fiendishly difficult to translate well; this is a subject I've expounded on before. And in the days before projector technology enabled the common practice of supertitles, perhaps opera companies feared that audiences wouldn't want to sit through three hours of an incomprehensible story, so they made the choice to translate the dialogue (a much easier task, since there are far fewer constraints) and leave the music intact, thus giving listeners some clue of the plot. But nowadays, why not just supertitle the entire thing? We don't watch foreign movies with some sections dubbed and some sections subtitled, which is really the equivalent of what happened here.

I'm willing to consider the possibility that my disappointment has partially to do with my love for and competency in the German language. It's not particularly tiring to me to listen to three hours of German, and far worth any increased effort to experience the opera in the beauty of the original language. But would I feel similarly for a Russian or French opera? Maybe I'll appreciate the English next year, when they perform Carmen.


Patty said...

Landed at your blog due to the OSJ reference. Hope you don't mind my comment!

I really missed the German as well. Some suggest, though, that as Mozart wrote this one in his native language rather than the usual Italian, we should hear it in our native language as well. I guess the people who make decisions opted for a blend; dialogue in English, singing in German. (I do think that makes more sense than doing it all in English, but I'll not go into my "why" right now. I'm lazy.)

Anyway, we did Carmen a few years back and I'm fairly certain it was all in French, including the dialogue. I'm not certain what will happen with that opera next year; it is probably up to the director. But I'm willing to bet it'll be in French.

(Are you an instrumentalist or singer? I see you are a musician ... just wondering if we've worked together! Yeah, I'm nosey ... you don't have to answer. :-)

Mike said...

Like Patty, I landed here on a search for OSJ "Flute" reviews.

I'm in the opera, and although I'm not a principal I do have a few of those English dialogue lines.

I do think it boils down to Mozart's original intent, to create an opera (or singspiel) for the masses to enjoy. The logical argument would be "why not do the whole thing in English", and I think you answered that with your point that English translations of operas are notoriously difficult, and good ones are few and far between. You should see the way it's translated by Schirmer... awful.

I agree it can be jarring, but I've gotten used to it. And I do appreciate that it makes it a bit easier for opera newbies, allowing them some moments when they don't have to read along. And let's face it, the plot for Magic Flute is pretty convoluted. Anything that makes it a little more comprehensible is OK in my book.

Language Lover said...

Patty and Mike, thanks for your comments. It's an honor to be able to discuss the performance with the artists themselves.

I think that ultimately it's a matter of what the director decides are the most important elements of "the original intent". Mozart may have intended his work for the masses, but I assume he also wanted to present a work in which the libretto and music fit together tightly. That simply can't be done well in translation. I think it's reasonable to do the whole opera in English if accessibility is the goal; but for imparting the full effect of Mozart and Schikaneder's genius, German is the way to go. OSJ's method was a compromise, one that I now realize is common. I know there are those who did appreciate the translated dialogue, and as I wrote, I might have been one of them had it not been this opera in particular.

Mike, you must have been one of the priests trying to get Papageno into the temple in the second act. I enjoyed your scene. (But it would have sounded better, more authoritative indeed, in German! ;) ) And Patty, I was exceedingly impressed with the caliber of the orchestra! To answer your question, I'm an amateur violinist and I don't think I've ever worked with you (I'm not at that level!) One of the OSJ violinists is my former teacher, and I used to be in the Ohlone Chamber Orchestra, which is led by one of your horn players. We once did the Messiah with some of the OSJ singers. (Oh, and I don't mind your blog link.)

Finally, I hope it is evident from what I wrote, and the stated focus of my blog, that my "disappointment" refers only to the choice of language used, and not to the quality of the performance. It was truly wonderful, and I'm even thinking of trying to go back to see the other cast before the run is over. My compliments to both of you and your colleagues.

Patty said...

Nice to read your comments, Language Lover! Thanks for saying the link was okay. I was just a bit concerned.

I'm not a German speaker, although I took it in college (it has long since left this brain), but I miss the German in this opera, to be sure. My brother lives in Germany and I can guess what he'd think about the English dialogue! I guess, no matter what, some folks will be disappointed with what is decided when it comes to this issue. Go figure.

I didn't think you were expressing disappointment in the performance, btw, but just in the language issue. And your disappointment wasn't offensive in the least, just so you know!

Small world ... you and I having several people in common.

Happy blogging to you! :-)

bookfraud said...

unlike patty and mike, i landed here because...i just landed here.

translating part of a piece into english while leaving the rest in german is just not right. sorry. though i didn't see the production in question, i don't see why it's needed, supertitles or no. so you had arias sung in german and recitative sung in english?

you either have to go the full monty or nothing at all. it would be like translating a soliloquy into german and leaving the rest of shakespeare's "dialog" in english.

Language Lover said...

Hi bookfraud, thanks for your comment. Both arias and recitative were sung in German, but all spoken material was performed in English. There was one piece in particular in which there were German lyrics interspersed with English speech, and it made me mentally seasick.

I like your Shakespeare analogy.

Mike said...

It's not my intention to keep coming here and be defensive about this production. After all, I didn't make any of the artistic decisions. But I feel compelled to point out that there is no piece in the opera that consists of sung German lyrics interspersed with English speech. The few dialogue scenes that are in the opera are completely separate from any arias, duets, etc.

There is one moment in the opera where there is spoken text in the middle of an aria. That's in Papageno's 2nd act aria "Papagena! Papagena!", in which he declares that he is going to count to three and if Papagena doesn't appear he will kill himself. He speaks the counting, and in our production he very clearly says "ein, zwei, drei".

Again, there is not a single instance where spoken English is interspersed with sung German within a number.

Language Lover said...

Mike, I apologize for what must be a faulty memory on my part, since you undoubtedly know your own production better than I do. Thanks for the correction.

I do still remember sections where there are rapid transitions between German and English; perhaps they are scenes in which the dialogue between pieces is short, even though the pieces are separate.

Mike said...

That's probably the case... some of the pieces are relatively short, and the opera seems to flow pretty seamlessly from one to the next, so I can see how you'd get the impression you did.

And I apologize for coming on so strongly in my last comment. I'm not intending to be defensive, but I sure do sound that way. I didn't really care for the sound of switching from sung German to spoken English at first. And while I've gotten used to it, I don't know that I'm necessarily crazy about it - although I admit that I like the benefit of making the opera a bit more accessible to newbies.

Anyway, it's clearly a perfectly valid reaction to prefer the dialogue in German. And I've gotten that feedback from other attendees as well. Obviously it's going to be something of a polarizing issue, with no right or wrong position.

Celeste Winant said...

I attended my first Pocket Opera production earlier this spring; Pffenbach's "Orpheus in the Underworld". Company director Donald Pippin pretty much exclusively puts on english-language versions of opera , and personally undertakes translating the non-English libretti for this purpose. His translation was exceedingly clever- indeed, one of the more polished elements of the performance (which was in collaboration with the spirited, but inexperienced Notre Dame de Namur musical theater department).

For me, the work came off as an overwhelmingly succesful piece of theater, but was musically not so satisfying. The english libretto does take some of the refinement out of the produciton's sails. On the other hand, Pippin's libretti are just about the most clever musical theater works out there. I love being able to get the jokes in "real time" (espeically since their supertitle person was a disaster at his or her job).

Berkeley Opera has also frequently collaborated with David Scott Marley in libretto translations. He is probably most famous for his version of "die Fledermaus", called "Bat out of hell", which not only translates the libretto, but resets the story at modern day party in the Berkeley Hills Mansion of a snotty Bill Gates wanna-be (i.e. Orlofsky). It was supposed to be really great.

SFCV review

I guess that opera has to serve the music-lover and the theater-lover in all of us. I probably would much prefer going to an english-language version of a Chekov or Pinter play, as I dont know their native languages, but as a music-lover first, theater lover, second, I prefer opera in the native language.

As someone who is concerned about the inaccessability of opera and classical music in popular culture, I am all for translation experiements, etc., do get people hooked. But, I am not all that worried about opera. It seems like HD simulcasts are effectively widening the audience.

rant rant rant.