Whether or not operas should be sung in the language in which they were written, or in the prevailing language of our audiences, is a huge area for debate. How successfully works are translated is another one.
Rupert Christiansen, writing in the DailyTelegraph this weekend, makes some interesting observations on the subject, such as the problem of finding an appropriate tone in a translation and the particular difficulties of singing in English as compared to, say, Italian.
And of course both questions go to the heart of what ENO does. So why do we sing in English? We believe that singers performing in their native tongue, to people listening to their native tongue creates a subtler, deeper connection between audience and stage than you could ever achieve with a foreign language. We use surtitles because we recognise that the nature of the human voice means even in our own language we might not catch every word. But they'll be used to catch the occasional phrase; people won't be glued to them in the same way they might be for a performance in a foreign language – and so that connection between the audience and the performers isn't broken. They are free to immerse themselves in the drama and the beauty of the sound. Testament to that was the extraordinary concentration and involvement of the audience at Friday's premiere of our new production of Rodelinda (pictured above). A cast of outstanding anglophone singers brought what is perhaps Handel's greatest music drama to dramatic life while the audience hung on to every word and musical nuance.
For the performers at ENO, 85 per cent of whom are British or British-trained, singing in their mother tongue can also add another dimension to their performance. When John Tomlinson, the great English bass, sang the role of Gurnemanz in Wagner's Parsifal in English for the first time at ENO in 2011, he said he discovered a new, deeper connection to the part while singing in his own language, despite having sung it in its original German for 20 years. And composers have always wanted audiences to understand their words. I remember a letter in the Covent Garden archives from Wagner to an Australian correspondent, relating to a performance of Lohengrin in Melbourne in 1877, in which he remarks "I hope you will see to it that my works are performed in 'English': only in this way can they be intimately understood by an English-speaking audience. We are hoping that they will be so performed in London."
In fact it's really only since World War 2 that the obsession with opera being performed in its original language has made any headway. Before that, in the leading operatic countries the work was performed in the native tongue – Italians sang in Italian to Italians, Germans in German to Germans. Until the second half of the 20th century, opera was largely an imported product elsewhere, brought there by various immigrant populations and performed in their own tongue. But when the German and Italian opera systems were rebuilt after the war, they depended more on non-native singers and the disconnect with the predominant tongue of the audience began. Around the same time the development of the long-playing record meant that for the first time it was practical for people to acquire complete recordings of operas (mainly sung in the original languages) for home listening.
Translating opera is undoubtedly an art and it is certainly a challenge to fit English phrasing into music not written for that language. Our translators, directors, conductors and singers spend a huge amount of time in the rehearsal room ensuring the translation is as faithful to the musical spirit of the piece as possible. Yes, you occasionally lose some of the poetry, but you gain far more as you create that greater emotional and psychological connection to the piece that comes when the barrier of language is removed.
Since 1931 when Lilian Baylis established Sadler's Wells Opera (ENO's former name), we have been passionate about providing audiences with the best opera in the most engaging ways. Just as the works of Shakespeare retain their impact in so many languages of the world, we believe the great operatic works can be translated and reimagined for contemporary audiences, while still retaining their beauty and strength. And if, in so doing, we instil a love of opera in future generations, that can only be a good thing.
John McMurray, Head of Casting at ENO