The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: We should hear more operas sung in English translation – like Wisconsin Public Radio’s live broadcast TODAY at noon of the Metropolitan Opera’s shortened version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” | December 29, 2018

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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear thinks that we in English-speaking countries should hear more operas sung in our native language.

Yes, sung in English – not the original Italian, French or German.

You can see how you’d like it for yourself if you listen at noon TODAY– Saturday, Dec. 29 — to Wisconsin Public Radio. That’s when you can hear the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast of its family-friendly production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.”

The Ear did so and – except for deleting the wonderful overture — loved it.

So, apparently, did a lot others. (You can hear Nathan Gunn in a sample in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

After many years, the production has now become a holiday tradition for the Met to offer children while school is out for the holidays.

And one suspects it is developing new audiences – especially with the colorful staging and costumes by Julie Taymor, who won such acclaim for her staging of “The Lion King” on both the stage and film.

Sure, a lot of purists will probably object to substituting English for the original Italian, French, German and Russian. But it is so freeing and feels so good to understand what you are hearing without the distraction of constantly going back and forth trying to look at both the supertitles and the stage.

It also seems worth a try, given the problems that many opera companies are having competing with the “Live from the Met in HD” productions that you can see in movie theaters for far less money, and the decline of both season subscribers and single tickets.

To be honest, of course even in English you will miss some of the words. That’s the nature of singing. But excellent diction helps. And if you are lucky enough to see the production in person, supertitles in Italian, French German and Spanish and, yes, English are still provided.

It is not a completely new idea. After all, Great Britain has the English National Opera, which performs standard operas by Verdi and Puccini, Monteverdi and Handel, Mozart and Wagner, in English. So, many of the very great operas have already been translated into English and could be staged in English elsewhere.

Here are links where you can learn more about the English National Opera:

Do you question how the text is hurt in translation?

It’s worth remembering that Mozart himself used the vernacular German instead of his usual opera house Italian so that he would reach the general public. Why not do the same today? Translation could make opera much more accessible, less pretentious and more populist.

The same is true for cutting the show down to 100 minutes from almost 3 hours. Let’s just admit that the attention span of the general public is much shorter than it used to be.

Orchestra and chamber music concerts as well as solo recitals are trimming their running times often down to 90 minutes or less, and meet with great approval from the public. Why not try the same approach with opera? Indeed, both the Madison Opera and the University Opera have limited but successful experiences with editing operas and using English.

It is also worth recalling that in translation we read greater words than an opera libretto. If we can translate Homer and Shakespeare, Dostoevsky and Proust, why can’t we translate opera librettos? One just has to be sure to find a great translator with a sensitive musical ear– such as American poet Richard Wilbur is with his award-winning, rhyming translations of Moliere’s comedies and Racine’s tragedies. Similarly, American poet J.D. McClatchy has done a fine job with The Met’s “Magic Flute.”

Here is a link to more information about the production, including a synopsis:

And here is a review of the Met’s  “Magic Flute” by Tommasini:

What do you think?

Should more operas be staged in English?

Should long operas be edited?

Why or why not?

The Ear wants to hear.

Posted in Classical music
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  1. I disagree. There are plenty of operas written by English language composers but for some reason they are seldom scheduled. Schedule them if you want opera in the English language. Otherwise, use the language intended.


    Comment by fflambeau — December 30, 2018 @ 9:49 pm

  2. I was introduced to opera in small doses (e.g. “What’s Opera, Doc”.) , including an abridged “Barber of Seville”. I certainly wouldn’t expect a middle school student to sit through “Die Walkure,” but they might get turned on by “Ride of the Valkyries.” Also, remember “Opera for the Young.”
    As for Opera in English, European houses have been doing opera in their own language for years and years and years. My preferences: Do secco recitativo in English, but leave arias/choruses in original language.It’s jarring to hear a favorite aria/chorus sung to different words than I’m familiar with. But then, I’m a long time opera lover. If I had grown up with the English version, I would probably prefer the English.


    Comment by Steve Powell — December 29, 2018 @ 11:19 am

    • Hi Steve
      Thank you for replying.
      I like the smaller doses approach for beginners of all ages.
      I also appreciate your candor that if you grew up used to English, that is what you would probably prefer.
      Overall, I think using English would be an interesting experiment that might help to build audiences among both adults and children.
      It might even enhance understanding of the individual operas.
      I wish you much happy listening in the new year.
      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — December 29, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

      • After sending my note, I remembered that my LP of Sadler Wells “Orpheus in the Underworld” was in English. That’s what embedded in my brain. The original French sounds strange.


        Comment by Steve Powell — December 29, 2018 @ 1:34 pm

  3. “Is my face just one big puddle? Aren’t I cute enough to cuddle?” I love opera for the glory of the human and orchestral voices, not for the words. I don’t expect great art from a libretto. Lost in translation — magic and mystery.


    Comment by bbead — December 29, 2018 @ 9:26 am

    • Thank you for your reply.
      I agree completely with you about going to opera for the music, both sung and played. The music is indeed paramount in importance.
      But theater is nonetheless a vital part of opera.
      I am not asking for librettos to be great art — just more easily understandable.
      That could help listeners better understand the plot and characters, which in turn could also help them to focus more on the signing and playing, and to feel more relaxed and enjoy the experience more.
      I’d also add the music often parallels the meaning or mood of the words, so understanding the words can add to the appreciation of the music.
      Happy listening!
      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — December 29, 2018 @ 10:11 am

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