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  • Writer's pictureSean Earley

The Language of Opera

When most people think of opera they think of unintelligible singing often in a foreign language with overtitles to help them understand what is going on. The traditional image of opera is an Italian one and perhaps the biggest face of opera in popular culture is Luciano Pavarotti (also an Italian). But opera exists in many other languages, for example, French, German, Russian and even English! Historically the issue of language in operas was quite contentious.

I cast my mind back to a quote from the film Amadeus, in the scene when Mozart is commissioned to write an opera in German. The Kapellmeister Bonno makes his feelings crystal clear about the choice of language: ‘The German is – scusate – too bruta for singing.’

This is a sentiment we can even see remnants of nowadays. I can’t count the number of times I have been told that German is an aggressive language. I have even been asked by a German person why I would want to learn German! I would like to make the case that German is a wonderfully musical language. Bold, right?

First argument: Mozart, the most famous classical composer, wrote German operas and was one of the early pioneers in popularising the use of German in operas. Call me crazy but as eccentric as he was known to be, he did have some sense on what sounded musical.

Second argument: Beethoven, the second most famous, also wrote German operas!

In all seriousness German is a beautiful language. In my opinion the clarity of the consonant sounds and lengthened vowels make it extremely suitable for singing since clarity of pronunciation is something that is stressed in singing technique. That coupled with rich vocabulary to create wonderfully meaningful lyrics, makes it ideal for opera. (The Germans seriously have a word for everything; a lot of you might have heard of Schadenfreude, or the pleasure at the misfortune of others.)

German deserves its place in music, as does English, French and of course Italian. Opera in different languages gives a different vibe and is a window into the culture of the country that speaks it. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries would not have the same booming impact being sung in French and the English language lacks the ability to produce the lovely rolling ‘r’ in The Marriage of Figarrrrro.

I believe every language has a place in music. And to those of you clever enough to remind me of sign language, don’t worry I didn’t forget. I suggest you watch the performance of the group Sing Along With Us in the final of Britain's Got Talent 2020. You can also check out 4 Minutes 33 Seconds by John Cage, which takes it a step further and shows there is even music in silence!

What are your thoughts on opera in different languages? Do you think some languages are more suited to music than others?

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