Opera in the Original Language

Last night the Met performed Dvořák’s opera Rusalka for the first time since 2004. The opera was performed in its original Czech. Most operas in the standard repertoire are in Italian, German, or French. Accordingly, most opera singers are reasonably comfortable in those languages. But how about Czech? This production has only one Czech performer in it and he doesn’t make a sound.

In the early 90s I recorded a performance of one of Janácek’s operas from the Met. I played the recording for a friend of mine who is a native of Prague. I asked her how the Czech was – only two of the singers were Czech. She said she couldn’t understand a single word sung by the non-Czechs. I was astounded.

“You really couldn’t understand any of it?”

“Yes.” She was adamant.

Why do an opera in a language that none of the performers can manage very well in front of an audience that doesn’t understand a word of what’s coming at them even if were intelligible? Well comprehension is obviously out. The argument usually offered is that the composer had the original language in mind as he wrote the notes and that the original language fits better than any translation. But is that argument any good when what’s being sung resembles no spoken human language as is usually the case when non-Czech speakers sing that language?

What seems to emerge when an opera is performed in a language that’s unfamiliar to the singers is opera as vocalise. The Met might just as well do Dvořák or Janácek as solfeggio. Jirí Belohlávek conducted last night’s Rusalka. Obviously he could tell the quality of the diction coming at him. Maybe he wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know how good Renee Fleming’s Czech is but I’d guess that its similar to that of almost any other American singer. The only reason I can think of to perform Czech opera in the original is to save the expense of buying an English translation. Everything said about Czech opera applies equally to Russian opera sung by non-Slavs.

If you’ve listened to opera in English you understand why a “translation” is still offered to the audience. Only a few singers can be understood even when they are singing their own language. Richard Strauss’ last opera – Capriccio – is about the primacy of word or music in opera. I don’t know why he bothered. In most operas there are no words – just sounds.

I think the best reason for doing an opera in a language not understood by the audience is to relieve them of the effort of trying to comprehend the words.

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