The end is in sight for all-English opera

The end is in sight for all-English opera


norman lebrecht

August 28, 2011

Over recent years I have breakfasted with several chairman and chief execs of English National Opera, trying to persuading them to relax the company’s founding purpose of singing only in English. My reasoning was, in 21st century conditions, irrefutable.

ENO prides itself as a people’s opera. When London was monoglot, it sang in English. But London today is multicultural and has large cultural communities – half a million Poles, for instance – to whom English is, at best, a second language.

The Coliseum, where ENO moved in the 1970s, has a very deep stage and the words tend to get lost i singers are no well to the front. The present generation of singers has also lost the old technique of clear articulation. The house now has surtitles. Why reduce great opera to cod-English, when the original is superior and the words can be read, bright and clear, above the proscenium?

There is no case to answer. All I was told was that it would never get past the board – change the board, I said – and in any event could not be contemplated while George Harewood was alive. The Earl of Harewood, cousin to the Queen, was strictly ancien régime where use of language was concerned. Sadly, George died last month.


 Now, in this week’s Lebrecht Interview, ENO’s music director Ed Gardner, comes cautiously round to my point of view, as the Independent reports.

“I wonder if in a few years we might possibly look at doing an original language opera,” he ventures. “There is something lost – I’m not going to deny. It’s a compromise. The allure of the language, especially Italian can get a little bit lost, and you’re hopefully replacing it with something more immediate.” He suggested breaking the ice by doing Ariadne in two languages – comedy scenes in English, the opera itself in German.

This is slow progress, but progress nonetheless. The Little England policy makes no sense at all in 2011.

On other matters, Eton-educated Ed tackled his prevalent image among some orchestral players as Tory Boy conductor and talked frankly about having to deal with a tabloid frenzy over a break-up in his private life. The Lebrecht Interview is tomorrow at 9.45 pm.


  • Colin Eatock says:

    A sensible and very useful way to “re-purpose” the ENO in the era of surtitles would be to shift the emphasis from foreign-language opera sung in English to operas originally written in English. That would mean fewer Traviatas — but how’s about Samuel Barber’s Vanessa or George MacFarren’s Robin Hood?

    • Lauren says:

      The Coliseum seats about 2300 people. Assuming a run of seven performances for a new production would Mr Eatock undertake to find 15,000 friends to sit with him at Robin Hood?

  • So sorry Norman, but I feel must – as a born and bred “English Language” singer who cut his teeth over many years at ENO and the Coliseum – beg to differ. “Little England” policy indeed!! ITo my mind a rather blinkered comment in itself!

    Yes, the Coli stage is rather large and sometimes words do get lost, especially if, in that wonderful acoustic, the orchestra is given a lot of rope dynamically. However, if the words were in Italian or German or Czech or French text would still get lost, so this cannot be used as an argument to discontinue the long standing policy of singing opera and operetta in English translation at the ENO. Equally, text getting lost on a large stage is not restricted to the Coliseum; in my experience it is a problem inherent in most large opera houses, including ROH Covent Garden, Bayerische Staatsoper, Wiener Staatsoper, the Met in NYC, the Bastille and Garnier theatres in Paris, etc, etc. Sadly it is the nature of opera, with the accompaniment of medium to large size orchestras, that makes it often difficult to hear text clearly whatever the language. Often the nature of the music and the orchestral writing itself can make it almost impossible to understand or hear text clearly.

    II believe it is true that, nowadays, less and less English speaking singers are being coached to articulate the language clearly on the Coli stage, and even more so some of the non-native-English-language speaking singers engaged there. There was a time at ENO, and not really that long ago, when music staff and singers were constantly encouraged by the Music Director, the Head of Music Staff and the Vocal Consultant (not to mention the upper management generally) to ensure that the standard of pronunciation and enunciation was kept at as high a level as possible. I am sure that if there were a stricter regime of vocal coaching in English it is possible that the singers would be more disciplined about their articulation and pronunciation. I was always glad of it during my years at the ENO, just as I was very glad of German and Italian coaching for operas I sang in those languages at other houses.

    I would stress, however, that this is not a problem just at ENO but at many opera companies around Europe. It is amazing how badly English as a singing language often seems to be treated by non-English speaking singers. Over the years I have worked with many Italian, German and Swiss artists who speak English very well, but seem to have little inclination to get proper language coaching when it comes to singing it. It should also be noted that not all Italian or German singers sing their own language that well either. It is amazing how lazy many singers are when it generally comes to enunciation and clear singing of the text, in any language!! So coaching is very important, that trained ear of a conductor or coach who listens objectively with a knowledge of the theatre, the stage, and acoustics of the house they are working in.

    I also have a feeling that not enough attention is paid generally to singing in English in Music Colleges both in and, particularly, outside the UK. (The one exception might be Korean singing students, who in my experience enunciate and sing English, German and Italian exceptionally well, even if they can’t speak them – possibly something to do with a different work ethic on their part, perhaps).

    My final note about singers singing in the Coliseum itself would be perhaps that some singers are sometimes fazed by the size of the auditorium, and consequently there can be an urge to try and oversing. The acoustics at the Coliseum are a Godsend for a singer, and although the auditorium is very large it is perfectly possible for a well projected voice to carry from deep upstage to the Gods. Of course voices will sometimes sound far away, but it is fair to say that you don’t have to have a big voice to sing in the Coliseum, you just have to know how to project it. That often comes with, again, good coaching from staff who work there, and possibly from experience. The younger the singer the less likely they will have had experience of singing in a big space. This would be a good justification for reviving the Ensemble (ie. a company of singers on long term contracts) tradition, a mix of singers where younger ones move up the ranks over the years and pass on their skills to those coming up behind – a tradition that still exists in most German houses.

    As for the English translations themselves? Well I suppose taste and sensibility will always be a governing factor as far as some are concerned, as well as the problem of the sound of the text translation with music intended for another language. But there is a wealth of wonderful English translations of the standard repertoire out there that easily counterbalance the sometimes bland or ridiculous. Yes of course, the music of Verdi will always sound more idiomatic when sung in the original Italian (or French in one case), and Wagner will always sound more idiomatic sung in German. But both these composers can sound fantastic in English when care is taken to give a translation that lies well in the voices and the music, and when that text is clearly enunciated. The plus side, for an English speaking audience, is also augmented by the fact (and as a performer I insist it is a fact) that an English speaking singer is more likely to FREELY express vocally and artistically an English text; the chance to enhance through nuance of expression being so much greater. It is after all their own language. Despite intense pronunciation/enunciation coaching when I sang a Handel opera in Italian, I never felt able to express the nuance of the language and the character as freely as I could when I sang it in English (even if the translation was a bit naff). I always felt singing in my own language made it easier to explore the role and find ways of expressing it.

    English is a wonderful language to sing in, and a wonderful language to hear sung! I have sung Italian Handel and Vivaldi operas in English translation, German Bach Passions in English translation, even modern German operas in English translation. Generally I have never had a problem with it, and indeed was quite glad to sing in my own language (often easier to memorize) since it gave me so much more freedom of expression on stage. Perhaps I was ljust ucky to have good singing translations to work with – I have to mention people like Ann Ridler, Amanda Holden, Nick Hytner, Desmond Clayton, Brian Trowell and others – that not only made sense but also sounded well musically.

    Generally I think there is definitely still a case for opera being translated in to the language of the audience, and there will always be an audience for it. In Germany it is often the case that an Italian Mozart or Verdi opera, and certainly a Janacek or Smetana opera, will be sung in German translation in many of the theatres, especially the B and C houses, dotted around the country. And in Berlin the great Komische Oper still champions all the standard and not so standard operatic repertoire in German translation. The Raison d’etre of the English National Opera (formerly the Sadlers Wells Opera) was always to bring opera and operetta to the English speaking public in English and to promote its appeal amongst young and old, rich and poor alike. Over the last 5 decades or so the English National Opera, by performing nearly all its rep in English, has created a special place for itself in one of the great Artistic capitals of the world. It does not even need to compete with the Royal Opera, just around the corner, as it offers a very different carrot to the public (and not only in terms of language). Long may it remain so!!

    • Excellent points, Herr Kammersänger! We should discuss them further over a drink.
      Neither I nor Ed Gardner advocate an abandonment of opera in English, but I feel there is a strong case for relaxing the rule at ENO – especially when there is a potential audience for original language in a polyglot city.

      • Colin Baldy says:

        I agree with both of you over individual points. Christopher is, sadly, correct when he says there has been a general lowering of standards with regard to good diction. Alas, young singers these days are so concerned with producing a “beautiful” sound that they often forget why they’re doing it. In addition, the fundamentals of how good diction is actually produced (IE good vowels, not enormous consonants) have also been all too frequently lost.
        Having said that, I think that anyone turning up at ENO for the first time, to see an opera in a language they are supposed to understand is more likely to be put off the art form by the very fact that they still can’t understand the words. In any case, I think modern audiences are far more sophisticated generally, being exposed to all sorts of material on the TV, internet and so forth. As a result, the idea of being exposed to something in a foreign language isn’t so weird. In any case, look at the wide general success of all those foreign language cop programmes on TV these days.
        So, all in all, I think someone is more likely to have a really moving experience hearing and seeing a work with the vocal sounds tailored to the music as intended by the composer.
        Of course, I’m all for ENO doing more original English language repertoire…

  • Zena says:

    Reading Mr. Robson’s very interesting post, my understanding of it is that singing in English is not more difficult than singing in Italian; but when the libretto is written in that language, it follows then so does the music. Ditto German, French, Russian, & Czech. Sloppy diction can apply in all cases.

    However, sloppy diction in Italian matters less than it does in English. All too frequently, the translation loses a certain sparkle – and this, coupled with less than good diction (and the sometimes dreary settings from a designer’s paucid imagination), is adding to my enjoyment after spending hard-earned cash?

    I came to opera relatively late in life (29), and was prepared to read my Kobbe beforehand. Audiences in Cardiff, where I first heard opera, certainly don’t have to endure English-(or Welsh)only operas! My guess is that the public will happily attend Boheme, whether it’s sung in English or Serbo-Croat – and much of the ‘English-only’ rule at ENO stems from Arts Council politics of 50 years ago. All decent theatres have surtitle screens these days – why shouldn’t ENO? As an audience member, I’d like to hear work in the original language…if that’s English, good: but Onegin in Russian is good, too!

    • An interesting post, and I respect your point of view on most of it. I have mixed feelings about surtitles but can understand why some people like them and why others don’t. My one sure thought re surtitles is that I personally prefer to engage totally with what is happening on the stage, and often find them superfluous and distracting.

      As regards diction/enunciation/pronunciation? As far as I am concerned, there is absolutely NO EXCUSE for sloppy diction. It matters, and it matters just as much with Italian singing as sung text in any other language. If a singer is not totally committed to expressing the text as clearly as possible then they are not doing their job. In opera a lot of text gets lost for all sorts of reasons, but that does not give a singer any excuse to be lazy about their words. If they don’t engage with the text then they are just singing a string of notes with no meaning or expression. The text is the nearly always the root of the music. As a professional singer myself I can find no justification for indulging oneself in the music without working 100% to put the words across the orchestra and into the ears of the public. Sloppy diction has no place in music generally, and it is not possible to express the music if you don’t commit to expressing the text as clearly as humanly possible. Sloppy Italian is just as irritating as sloppy English!

      Yes it is true; sometimes the music can lose some of its sparkle when the text is sung in other than the original language. But in my professional experience I would say that it gives the singer a good springboard from which to find new ways of expressing the music through a translated text. That can also be exciting for an audience if they will engage themselves and listen. Too many audiences are happy to let the music wash over them without giving a thought to the text or really litening to it.

      An audience MUST commit itself to listening to texts, and I personally believe a lot of audiences have become very lazy about really engaging with a performance. Listening and watching require more effort than a lot of people realise (or want to give), and again, as a professional performer, I am dismayed by the lack of engagement by some audiences. Yes, they pay to go, but that is not an excuse to be passive and just mentally sit back and detach the mind from the performance. If I ever did that as a performer then I would get a bollicking from management and public alike. I would be insulting the audience – and composer and librettist and my colleagues – if I did not strive to give 100% to every aspect of my performance, and that includes enunciating the text clearly and investing it with personal meaningful expression.

      The music is only the half of it when it comes to opera, oratorio, cantatas, lieder, chanson, etc, etc. The words are the other half, and maybe they are not always heard or understood. But without them, there is no meaning to the music.

  • Duncan Reed says:

    What’s with the rather rude name-calling of ‘Tory boy’ Ed Gardner? Do you simply equate Eton education with Tory politics? I note you didn’t tackle Mr Gardner on this subject in your interview as you are skating on fairly flimsy ice. Whereas Semyon Bychkov and Valery Gergiev were treated fairly by you, I thought you were verging on the patronising here. Why the aggression?

    • No aggression. I was asking him about a nickname pasted on him by some orchestral musicians. He dealt with it well.

      • Duncan Reed says:

        But of what benefit is it to repeat a nickname that merely references his youth and where he was educated? Neither of which are his fault. Where does that get us, other than making him squirm?

        I also hardly think you would repeat some of the unkind and irrelevant things that musicians might say about female singers or players or conductors in off moments, and ask them to ‘deal’ with those. All a bit cheap, and your justifications are therefore rather disingenuous.

        • If Ed Gardner didn’t mind, why should you? If he had raised any objection, I would have edited it out.

          • Duncan Reed says:

            Well because he manifestly can ‘deal’ with it, and anyway wouldn’t wish to appear to be crying wolf.

            My point is, you should examine your own approach to what it is appropriate to raise and what is just pointless name-calling – or the repetition of it. For example, you rightly tacked Gergiev on his arguably less-than-respectful approach to rehearsals – because we wanted to know why he behaves like this. He gave not a bad reply in the circumstances. But it was about his approach to work and his relations with others. The Tory boy thing with Gardner is nothing of the sort, it’s just saloon bar prejudice because he is young and perceived to have been expensively educated. Or am I missing something deeper that you and others are driving at?