Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Understanding the text

Hi, Y'all!
In an odd but nevertheless very real sense, not understanding the
language of an opera's libretto is a big help in learning to appreciate the
work to hand. Many of us first learned to love opera when we were quite
young, before we became anything approaching "courrant" in the language of the
libretto. So we studied the story beforehand, and then followed bi-lingual
libretti along with recordings until we had the English translation nearly
memorized. We recognized only too well that there were still subtle
nuances that we just didn't get. We tried our best to compensate, and in so
doing we really learned some of the basic ways in which opera "means": we came
to understand why and how "pointing" text matters, even when we didn't
fully understand the text that was being pointed; we learned how artists vary
vocal color in their interpretations to bring "mere words" to life; we
recognized how and why phrasing conveys meaning; we appreciated how and why
clear articulation played a role, even when we didn't understand the words
being well articulated. NOT being able to fully understand the text actually
helped us, much in the same way that his blindness actually helps a blind
man "see" and appreciate many things sighted people do not and can not. In
opera appreciation, especially with beginners, necessity really IS the
mother of invention.
Quite often, we plowed through those bi-lingual libretti so often that
we came to be thoroughly conversant with the English translation of every
line. To this day, I can quote from memory most of the English translation
that came with my first Wagner recording (the Keilberth "Lohengrin,") that
I bought with my own money when I was still in high school. I just
recently won a bet by being able to quote from memory the entire first act of
Barber's "Vanessa." Sometimes we had the benefit of two different libretti
(and thus two different translations we could synthesize.) We were still not
as "tuned into" the text as a native speaker would be, but we did far
better than casual opera goers. Then, as we grew older, many of us became
truly well versed in at least one foreign "opera language." We began to get a
sense not only of the many nuances we had heretofore missed, but the KINDS
of nuances that they were. And meanwhile, many of us became exposed to
operas that had been written in our native language, and we discovered that we
couldn't understand most of the words sung in an opera house even in a
language we knew. So we applied many of the same "coping skills" we had
learned with operas in a foreign language, and lo and behold, they worked. So
most of us use supertitles when we do not know the text of any opera well
and forget about them when we do. To this day I do not find supertitles
nearly as distracting as all the futzing that's necessary with opera glasses.
I need regular glasses at the opera in the first place, so trying to use
opera glasses becomes a very big, busy deal: it's an off, on, up, down,
now-where-was-I process at best. But I'm long accustomed to "sneakpeeking" at
supertitles, and because I now do it entirely from force of habit, it is
actually no distraction to me at all.
Several recent posts have made the point that Wagner wrote in a type
of German and in a style that would give many native German speakers of both
his and our own times pause for thought. What these posts have NOT done
is to complete the thought they started: Wagner knew full well that even
native German speakers would encounter some "strangenesses" and difficulties,
and that they would find much of his text "stilted," and/or "old
fashioned." He fully intended this aesthetic distancing, as one of the ways in
which he deliberately "mythologized" his poetry and "re-mythologized" his
source material. It was not his intention that the listener necessarily be a
"full partner" with his texts at all.
In short, I think that those of us who are unacquainted with most
"operatic languages" and who perhaps do passing well in just one of them
actually DO miss things, but I don't think we miss all that much. We muddle
through pretty well.
Dennis Ryan

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