I'm in Chicago for a couple of days enjoying some time with friends and looking forward to a meeting tomorrow with Brian Dickie of the Chicago Opera Theater. This is a model company doing fantastic work, both early and later. If you are ever in Chicago check them out at the Harris Theater in Millenium Park.
I particularly enjoyed a slow walk around the Tribune Tower today. Building blocks of some of the worlds most and grand and most humble, but always provocative, buildings are on display here in the walls of the Tower. Pretty fascinating. I had to, of course, make a pilgramige to the Art Institute of Chicago today. They have a wonderful French 19th century collection, but I enjoyed looking at some beautiful Boticelli paintings, Brancusi sculptures, and the Chagals (though "Sunday on the Park" is always impressive). Today I took some extra time to visit the Asian art. It is a small, but moving collection.
Now...on a completely different subject. This is something I've been wanting to write about for a while. It is a subject worthy of a lot of discussion, but I will probably sound too preachy if I do anything, but touch on it...so touch I will. I have become increasingly disappointed with companies that choose to translate operas into English. Why did this practice get started? I haven't written for a while to make sure my gut reaction to this practice is not for the wrong reasons. I realize I run the risk of sounding right off like a snob, but stay with me and you will see that exactly the opposite is the case.
First of all, opera translated shows a disrespect for the music (let alone the poor poet), and a general lack of understanding for the opera as a genre. There are periods of composition where a composer's connection with text was out of balance with his devotion of lyricism. There are indeed some mildly successful translations of Handel's Italian operas (particularly ENO's "Ariodante"). On the other hand there is quite a lot of rep that ABSOLUTELY cannot be translated without destroying the subtle relationship of text to music, without nullifying the genius of the composer. No where is this more true than in early Italian operas or French baroque operas. To translate Monteverdi shows the greatest egotism in the face of the music. Monteverdi did not respond to the poetry in a general sense, but composed each note in a response to each syllable of recitative. There is a sacred bond between the poetry and the line, and the most fundamental pacing of the music is based on the structures inherent in Italian verse (VERY different to English verse). The same is true for Lully, Rameau, Gluck, Mozart, Wagner, Strauss. The list goes on. Ultimately any great composer approaches sung text this way. To translate may leave a lovely tune and even, with luck, convincing poetry, but it robs the audience of entrance into that magic land between the two where the composer inhabits. The sum is greater than the parts, and translating poetry cheapens the genius of the final work.
The response to this of course is that I'm being euridite, that translating opera into English is a way to open opera to a wider audience. This is simply untrue and ultimately leads to the further making of opera obsolete in today's society. Why? This is the dumbing down of opera, similar to the "symphony with a twist" approach to concert music. Dumbing down the work is not the same as revealing its relavence for a contemporary audience, and it certainly isn't the same as helping an audience appreciate the art. In the end the work isn't worth the experience no matter how "accessible" it is made, and the audience senses that it isn't worth investing in something that has to be dumbed down. Also, this approach is laziness. Instead of translating, time, talent, and creativity should be put into making the productions relevant without sacrificing the art. Often times, more often than not, these translated productions are at the best mediocre and, though the audience can more easily keep up with the language, the product itself is far from cathartic. Chances are that if a producer isn't sensitive enough to know that translation cheapens a work, he or she isn't sensitive enough to create a smart and moving production. If one can't make opera in the original language work for a contemporary audience, the answer isn't to trample the work. The answer is to go back to the drawing board, put one's heels in, and really learn the craft of stage direction and opera production - thinking outside of the box. If one isn't willing to do that, it would be better to get out of the kitchen and not dumb down great art.
These works are great for a reason. They carry across time, class, and even language. It is all in the manner of presentation. At AOT we perform in the original language and that is for one simple reason - the works are better when performed this way. At the same time we are committed to making opera relevant for wider 21st century audiences. We do this with innovative approaches and sincere passion for the art. We succeed in our goal. It works. This is testament to the quality of the art and the sheer madness of opera in translation (one only has to think back to last year's beautiful Met "Zauberflote" in a visually stunning production, but an absolutely ridiculous and offensive translation). We should have more faith in our audiences. If we have faith in them they will have faith in us. If we feel like we need to dumb the work down inorder that they might understand it, chances are they will catch on to us fast. Winning them back after this will be infinitely more challenging.