Opera’s not just for Italians anymore

Learning how to sing and act in different languages is a challenge for classical singers, as the languages that singers find themselves singing in are often very different from their native tongues. Languages share many of the properties of music, like rhythm and accents, and with time composers have become very skilled at conveying the meaning of words through music.

Much of the operatic repertory was contributed by Italian composers like Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini, who all wrote in their native tongue; several of Mozart’s operas are in Italian as well. Italian was a natural language for opera because it is an even, flowing language in which each syllable is the same length. Italian also has many easily sung vowels. Spanish is similar; that’s why it often seems like your Spanish teacher is talking at 20 miles an hour! This type of flowing language is very musical.

In the last century and a half, many nationalist composers began writing operas in their own languages, so less common languages became the norm. Czech composer Leos Janácek is a contemporary example of composers who are ignoring the traditions of language in music. According to BBC Music Magazine, “Janácek’s voice now had to be taken seriously, and he added something fundamentally new — the accents of the Czech language itself, which he transcribed into the music.”

Languages such as English, Russian, and Czech lack the even, flowing characteristics of Italian. In Russian, each word has a single stress where one syllable in the word is stressed over all the other syllables; English has two levels of stress. Music has to reinforce language’s natural rhythm, or it will sound artificial. Modern composers have been experimenting lately, composing music that is antagonistic to language.

Another challenge in languages other than Italian is the varying word order. We are accustomed to one certain word order in English. In Russian and German, however, the word order is different. Remember how Yoda talked? For instance, if you translated a line of Russian word for word, it would read “smother I you” in English. A singer does not want to sing like he is smothering himself, does he?

Opera is very different from lieder — art songs. A librettist takes a piece of literature and reworks it to be used in an
opera. For lieder, a composer takes a poem and puts it to music. Lieder have the added dimension of the elements of poetry, like meter and more complex grammar.

Obviously, it is very hard for non-native speakers to sound authentic when they are just speaking a language. Consider how much more difficult it would be to bellow out that really weird vowel over the top of the orchestra. Music majors at Carnegie Mellon are required to take semesters of French, Italian, and German language and diction. Diction could be described as the study of pronunciation. Opera companies often call in diction coaches to work with singers.

When singers are preparing a piece of music, they typically have a translation of the music so they know what’s going on in at least a line or phrase of music, if not word by word. The beauty of music, though, is that you don’t have to understand the words to understand their meaning. Samantha Grenell-Zaidman, a senior voice major, said, “The composer guides you with the music, so you’re not completely lost. Composers write the music to correspond not only to the language, but also to the emotion.”
Some opera companies, like the Pittsburgh Opera, project translations of what the singer is saying during the performance. Many experienced opera-goers ignore the projections. Music is one of those rare art forms that allows us to understand a book without reading it. Nisha Asnani, a voice major, wrote, “The amazing thing about music is that you don’t have to know the words at all to get the meaning, the feeling of the song. Music is a universal language.”

Last Wednesday night, a group of Carnegie Mellon students went to a performance by the Moscow Chamber Orchestra with contralto Ewa Podles. The modern languages department sponsored the tickets, taking their cue from Charlene Castellano, a professor of Russian. Castellano wanted her students to experience the intersection between music and culture. She said, “Some of my classes focus on language, others on culture. I see them as inseparable. The two need to be brought together in order to have a complete understanding.”

Podles, a Polish singer, performed Rossini’s Joan of Arc in Italian and later Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death in Russian. This programming is an excellent example of the versatility singers are expected to command. But, having read the song texts, one could sit back in his seat and let Mussorgsky’s imaginative music tell you what Podles was singing about. Mussorgsky was very famous for his skill in setting words to music. His biographer, Gerald Abraham, wrote, “As a musical translator of psychological states and even physical movement, he was unsurpassed.”