Opera and translation

By Ben Howdeshell
More info

Opera wouldn’t be quite the art form that it is without the words highlighting the story behind the music. This, however, poses its own challenge to understanding an opera for modern, global audiences, as the poetry of the libretto might be missed unless you happen to speak the language fluently.

As Anthony Tommasini points out in The New York Times article that inspired this humble blog post, providing a translation that is not only accurate to the source but also fits the musical line is a challenge for translators. However, with credit again to another of Mr. Tommasini’s articles, there are strong artistic opinions on the merits and benefits of opera in translation, and when done, linguistic fidelity often cedes to linguistic creativity. When it’s well done, you get a wonderful marriage of emotion and meaning that blends in well with the music. When not, well, it can sometimes feel like reading badly translated subtitles.

For many people, including myself, opera is the ultimate emotionally cathartic experience. Love, despair, grief, fear, betrayal, beauty, nobility: it’s all there. Hearts dance with Bizet’s “Carmen” as she seduces her Don José and then race as she is later confronted by him while in the arms of another. Tears well for Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” as her naïve faith in a forgotten love drives her to the ultimate sacrifice. Cheers join Figaro and Susanna in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” as they manage quite possibly the worst boss ever (thankfully, the boss’s wife is a good egg).

Much of the catharsis that takes place between stage and audience is due, not surprisingly, to the music. The fearless conductor leading the pit of winds, brass, percussion and strings, as well as guiding the singers on stage, does his or her best to revive the composer’s emotive intent. Audiences around the world generally listen to a staged opera in its original language and read along with translated supertitles projected above the stage (or, if you are lucky enough to go to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, you read along with the fancy – and multilingual! – Met Titles that glow softly from the back of the seat in front of you).

While audiences have the the benefit of supertitles to provide the translation, opera singers must know the language in order to convey the meaning of the words via the music. Rinat Shaham, an Israeli mezzo-soprano who sings a searing Carmen, puts linguistic knowledge at number two on her list of twelve important investments for singers. A good number of performers in the opera world are quadri- and quinti-lingual, which makes me jealous, personally, as a self-professed language nerd.

So, the question remains: does performing an opera in a language that may be unfamiliar to its audience, without the help of a translation of some sort, diminish its dramatic impact, or can skilled musicians overcome the language barrier?

To attempt an answer, let’s try a little experiment, starting with one of Carmen’s more well-known arias from the eponymous opera. Listen to as much of the aria below as you care to, featuring the afore-mentioned Ms. Shaham. Don’t be a hero; I know it’s not for everyone. If you don’t already know the aria, try and imagine what Carmen might be trying to say, and why.

Now, watch the video below and take another look, noting the English subtitles at the bottom, which are reasonably faithful to the French lyrics. The two clips share the same music, the same French text, and very similar staging. Is there any difference? Does the subtitled version carry more weight, or does it not really matter at all? If you go back to the version without subtitles, does it make more sense?

Oh, but we’re not quite done yet. Remember this British Airways commercial? The music is a stylized version of “The Flower Duet” from “Lakme” by Léo Delibes (a sensational, if slightly dated, recording of the original can be found here if you are interested).

Suffice it to say that the lyrics have nothing to do with air travel. But yet, there is something compelling enough about the music that the words didn’t really matter for BA’s marketing team! The music, on its own, is simply gorgeous enough to provide the intended ambience.

So, what did you discover? Are you humming “Carmen” or the “Lakme” duet? Or are you thinking of the words? Perhaps you’re mesmerized by the combination of the music and story or by the performer and the individual nuances he or she brings to the role? From Sydney to Stockholm, opera continues to enchant, whether you understand the language or not.

Photo attribution: blentley

Power your strategic growth

Go beyond tactical localization with tailored, strategic solutions that resonate locally and drive growth globally.

Get started