Shouldn’t Welsh National Opera sing in Welsh?

Shouldn’t Welsh National Opera sing in Welsh?


norman lebrecht

January 17, 2019

From an ongoing correspondence in the Times newspaper on ENO’s antediluvian adherence to singing in English.



Sir, Roslyn Pine’s assertion (letter, Jan 15) that operas sung in their English translation “jar and are not enjoyable” is undoubtedly true. The reason is that the “translations” are inaccurate owing to ENO’s miserable attempts to include some poetry and rhyming in the lyrics. This results in an amateurish, incongruous style similar only to Alfred Bestall’s Rupert Bear nursery stories. Neither Welsh National Opera nor Scottish Opera consider it necessary to translate operas into their native Welsh or Gaelic, and ENO should follow suit.
Peter Froggatt

Dorking, Surrey


  • RW2013 says:

    Is that where Parsifal sings to the flower maidens “I’ve come to penetrate your tiny bushes”?

  • Nick2 says:

    What a ridiculous comment that the Scots and Welsh should sing in those languages! I have not seen any of the rest of this correspondence but have to agree that some translations are dreadful. Others, though, can be quite excellent. David Pountney and Leonard Hancock produced some splendid translations (Fledermaus, The Bartered Bride) – and the Ruth and Thomas Martin Cosi is exquisite.

  • V.Lind says:

    One of the longest evenings of my life was sitting through The Pearl Fishers sung in English at ENO. Grrrrrrr. Another was Die Fledermaus in English — in an experiment I never heard repeated — at COC. I have no problem with Britten or anyone else whose libretto is in English — I have even been to Sir John in Love — but I detest fine operas in translation.

    • Mike Schachtet says:

      Pearl Fishers is excessively long in French also. But translations are difficult and their quality varies hugely. Why have them in the age of surtitles?

    • Sue Sonata Form says:


    • Una says:

      Why did you go if you detest operas in translation so much? Some of us actually like it, and is the only way I could have got 42 who had never seen an opera to Traviata in English and at a price they could afford. I saw Pearl Fishers in English – fine. We did it in French in Scottish Opera. Scots are always excellent at speaking French more than the rest of us. There is a choice in life and you simply don’t have to go. Go to Covent Garden if you like opera in the original but let those of us who are happy to do both enjoy it. Otherwise it just becomes divisive, more than opinion, snobbish, and nobody enjoys anything. I certainly had no problem seeing Parsifal many years ago in Italian in Italy, or Carmen in German when I was in Mainz. At the end of the day, people heard the operas in Italy, Germany and France in the language of the audience of the day. I was in Fledermaus in Scottish Opera and that was in English. We also did Cunning Little Vixen in English and Cosi – as Opera North did recently. Made very good sense but no one has to go if they don’t like it and them complain when they do!

  • fierywoman says:

    I played The Messiah in Italian: “A noi e’ nato un bambino!”

  • Tom Stewart says:

    I’m currently brushing up on my Egyptian, Akkadian and Hebrew ready for ENO’s surtitle-less performance of Akhnaten next month! Antediluvian enough for you, Norman?

    • Don Fatale says:

      There you have it folks, the insanity that is ENO.

      • Una says:

        It is part of their charter and reason for existing. You forget that most opera in the early days at Covent Garden were in English, and there was the whole issue of ENO not being allowed to become the British National Opera, so plunged for English. There is more to it than just face value English language.

  • Dominic Stafford says:

    I assume that all this correspondence ignores the salient fact that English National Opera is the only British company to have to share its potential audience with the Royal Opera Covent Garden, one of the world’s greatest opera houses?

    English National Opera serves a valuable purpose in breaking down the barriers to opera continually erected by that rather mediocre bunch of people that we insist, for some reason, on labelling the ‘intelligentsia’.

  • Seriouslypedantic says:

    Actually, WNO do translate their operas into Welsh, albeit only for the surtitles, and only when playing at Welsh venues.

  • Ellen Jones says:

    WNO which is now 70 years old always sings operas in their original languages which is never Welsh! They are a company based in our capital, Cardiff, not a Welsh company. When I worked there only two of us could speak Welsh and the other person was a telephonist! Singers come from all over Europe and America to sing so pity help them if they had to learn yet another language.

    • C Porumbescu says:

      Of course, this is not strictly true. WNO often stages operas in English – most recently War and Peace, The Barber of Seville, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro…just off the top of my head.

    • Byrwec Ellison says:

      To add to Porumbescu’s comment, I was in Brno last month for their biennial Janáček Festival, which this time around featured performances of all the composers stage works (all 9 operas!). The other productions – mounted by several different opera companies, including Flemish Opera, Poznan’s Teatr Wielki and Prague’s National Theatre – were sung in Czech; but Welsh National Opera’s “From the House of the Dead” was sung in the late John Tyrrell’s recent English translation, the only opera that was sung in the Queen’s English. (And I had so been looking forward to hearing it sung in Czech!)

    • Garry Humphreys says:

      If they were to sing Joseph Parry’s Blodwen in the original language it would be in Welsh. A fine work, incidentally, by a very significant 19th-century Welsh composer, and overdue for a modern performance and production. Dewrder! Ewch amdani!

  • Hornbill says:

    “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.”

    So wrote Richard Wagner in October 1877 in relation to a performance of Lohengrin in Melbourne

    • Stuart says:

      And yet, when Wagner conducted (sharing that role in each concert with Richter) several concerts of excerpts at Albert Hall in 1877, it was all done in German. This was in May, just before the letter you cited.

    • Sixtus says:

      I imagine that Wagner, ever the innovator in the application of then-high-tech stagecraft as well as of theater design, would have approved of the modern innovation of sur- and subtitles in preference to performances in the local language, IF the titles were as accurate as possible. He, of course, was a firm believer in the verbal and theatrical importance of the librettos he composed.

  • C Porumbescu says:

    Again, this weird notion that ENO is somehow unique or strange in presenting opera in English. WNO, Opera North, Scottish Opera, and English Touring Opera all present operas in English as a matter of course – not absolutely everything, but certainly a substantial part of their repertoire. In fact, the only publicly funded UK company that doesn’t do this routinely is the Royal Opera. Covent Garden, not ENO, is the anomaly in that respect.

    There’s a lot of sense in presenting comic operas in the language spoken by the majority of the audience (which in Wales would be English, to answer the rather silly question above) as long as it’s done clearly and well. In recent seasons I’ve seen prominent UK companies doing Figaro, Barber of Seville, The Merry Widow, Die Fledermaus, Cosi fan Tutte, L’heure Espagnole, and Die Entfuhrung in English, all to great effect. But I’ve seen it work well in serious works (most recently, WNO’s War and Peace, but also Khovanshchina, Hansel and Gretel, Ariadne auf Naxos, Otello, and Eugene Onegin). The enhanced connection between audience and performers is very noticeable.

    Far from being antediluvian, it’s also very noticeable that many if not most of the companies that are partcularly concerned with bringing opera to a new public, and moving the art forward – eg Graham Vick in Birmingham, Music Theatre Wales, English Touring Opera, Opera Up Close – almost always choose to present it in the vernacular. Linguistic purists have the ROH and countless recordings to fall back upon.

    In short there is, and continues to be, a huge amount of opera performed in the English language around the world, and while there might be an artistic case for ENO performing occasional works in the original language, it’s surely entirely appropriate that at least one major publicly-funded house in the global centre of English language theatre should be contributing to and showcasing the development of English language opera. If not ENO, then who? The demand for singers and new translations is demonstrably huge, and it’s certainly not going away.

    • Nick2 says:

      I am not sure about Scottish Opera’s policy nowadays, but during Alexander Gibson/Peter Hemmings’ tenure there was a policy to present some operas first in English and then revivals in the original language. No doubt this caused some problems for artists engaged for the same roles. But it seemed to work. Cosi, Figaro and even Der Rosenkavalier were first presented in English. Even Helga Dernesch re-learned the role for the first performances. I recall Michael Langdon was engaged at just a few months notice for the final two performances of the run. One of the most distinguished international exponents of the role, he also re-learned Baron Ochs in English. But he ran out of time and had to sing Act 3 in German. When repeated a few years a later, both artists and the others in the company sang in the original German.

  • OperaBaritone says:

    This is a bad take. Pre-supertitles, opera was often performed in the common language of the house. And even beyond that, sometimes singers just sang in the language they knew, regardless of the country the opera house was in. (There’s a great recording of Carmen from Russia in which the entire cast sings in Russian, and Del Monaco sings in Italian…and NO ONE sings in French). To say that opera should only be in the original language is simply a modern and snobbish take. It is only because of high quality recording abilities that you are so familiar with the words, rather than the melodies.

    That is to say that there is certainly a place for Covent Garden to do operas in their original languages AND a place for ENO to do them in English.

    ALSO, the whole point is for the operas to be in the vernacular of the people, not the original language associated with the country, so to assume they should perform in Gaelic or Welsh is ridiculous.

  • Edgar says:

    Berlin’s Komische Oper did opera auf Deutsch for many years. One can listen to another example: a fine recording of a superb Don Giovanni ensemble from Cologne, under Wolfgang Sawallisch, with a young Hermann Prey and Fritz Wunderlich onstage. Alles auf Deutsch.

    It all depends on the quality of the text translation, I suppose, which at times requires drafting new lyrics so as to come as close as possible to the meaning of the original text – always obeying the musical flow intended by the composer.

    I, for one, would have liked to travel back in time and be in the house on the night on which Gustav Mahler conducted Wagners “Die Walküre” at the Budapest Opera – entirely sung in Hungarian, which, I assume, left “hojotoho!” intact…

    Maybe opera companies need to band together and look into collaboration with the people who are behind the very fine online translator Their algorithms are far superior to any other currently available. Maybe Deepl could be persuaded in developing the software which accommodates opera texts? Wie wunderschön dünkte mir das!

  • Una says:

    What a stupid letter. If he doesn’t like opera in English, then don’t go! Got to Covent Garden. Scottish Opera – only half the company it was when I was in it – and Opera North don’t always do everything in the original language. I’m going to Magic Flute tomorrow night at Opera North, and it’s in English – hurray! All that spoken dialogue in German in Yorkshire would be far too much for them and for me, and surtitles are just tiring and take you away from the stage.

  • Rankeillor says:

    Modern surtitles have superseded any need for opera in English but the point about Scotland and Wales is specious. There are probably more Italian speakers in Scotland than the 1.1% of the population who speak Gaelic. Only 19% of the population of Wales speak Welsh.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Personally I wouldn’t want to see an opera in an English translation, except, perhaps, for something like Fledermaus where it would make sense. I think that surtitles mean we don’t need to use English translations.

    However, some people like to hear opera sung in English, and there will always be an audience. The question is “how big is that audience”. I contend that it is too small to have the policy of “only in English”. The regional companies have a few in English and the rest in the original language. The ENO should also do this; it would increase its potential audience.