A young(ish) opera singer's random thoughts and observations.

Friday, 21 March 2014

The language barrier - breaking the spine

As opera singers we are expected to sing in foreign languages. This is a fact. The degree to which this expectation stretches varies: I have heard some questionable pronunciation from non-native English singers in British houses, I've also had the comic pleasure of listening to non-Polish singers attempt Górecki or Chopin, and I'm sure the Italians have to put up with a lot of butchering of their language. Some people will settle for intelligible, others will strive for the idiomatic/vernacular.

However high or low you aim, you will need help. Speaking the language you're trying to sing in helps, and one of the things I'm thankful to the Academy of Music in Kraków for is that they tried to teach us exactly that. 3 hours of Italian a week for 3 years, 2 hours of German/French for 2 years, if I remember correctly, and that was all vocabulary, grammar, writing, conversation, etc (not much singing though). Over here in the UK it's all about phonetics, which is also great, because unlike in Poland my tutors here would not settle for imperfect pronunciation. The ideal from a student's point of view would be both approaches, but sadly with fees rising and what's on offer at colleges shrinking it's left to us to find the time and funds to make up for lost ground.

And here I am learning a role in Czech. It's a language I have never had to work in before. I've been to the country, but gotten by just speaking Polish. It has made me realise how hard it can be to get into a new language. My parents had me learning German and French as a child, not to mention a few years living in England, and Italian just naturally comes with the territory of singing, so as a fifth language it came quickly (not that I'm fluent or even far beyond basic in any apart from Polish and English). Tackling Janáček (who in terms of word-setting is the Czech equivalent of Britten) was initially a very steep uphill climb due to my lack of previous contact with the language (except an hour in Banff, which I foolishly didn't have the sense to record). A few months in I feel I've broken the spine of it and I'm not relying so heavily on the phonetic transcription I copied from a book (by the way, if you think Castel is overpriced, try buying the Czech equivalent!).

Why am I writing this? Everyone knows languages are hard. We just deal with it - get recordings of native singers, get phonetics books, get coaching... I'm writing on the off chance that people who can make decisions that will help young singers will read this and see our need. How could they help you ask? Well:

Colleges could make the effort to help in familiarising students with more languages. Perhaps rather than hammer away at Italian for 4-6 years sacrifice some of that time for a term each of Russian and Czech (any other rare-in-the-UK but regular operatic languages out there?*). Before you attack me, I know some colleges do offer coaching in those languages, but some do not, and they should, and not just as one off sessions. A term of regular input would go miles towards familiarising our ears with how it should sound and how to read it.

Companies helpfully tend to bring in language coaches. The problem is that by the time you get to work with them in rehearsal it becomes fixing ingrained mistakes (because you need to be off copy by the start of production), while trying to deal with the staging side of things. Now I know offering language coaching to a chorus is not always going to happen, but many companies take the time to teach their choruses the music (so everyone is on the same page and learning to be a unit from the word go) and it's great if the language coaching happens then. Principals and covers aren't so lucky. Now I'll be honest - I have not asked Garsington if I could have some Czech coaching from them, not because I don't think they'd provide it, but because by the time I thought of it I'd pretty much figured out a process of doing it myself. A slow, painful process (involving books, recordings, youtube, coaching, etc)... So I don't know if companies practice offering their contracted singers access to language coaching before rehearsals, but if they don't, they should at least consider it. Take a few of the hours that coaches come into the rehearsal room and use them to give principals some 1:1 time. Even an hour on just the language would be invaluable, and singers would feel they get some excellent support.

There are probably very good reasons these things don't happen - organisational, priority-managment, things I haven't thought of... But speaking as a singer, it would be nice to be prepared by college to deal with the less common languages, or to get offered support from an employer (in hindsight I should have asked - tip to all of you who have yet  to face a new language).

In the meantime, for all of you who didn't get the generous steeping in foreign languages that I have been given (thank you Mum and Dad!!!), I now feel your pain! Keep at it ;)

*Sanskrit doesn't count, no matter how popular Satyagraha becomes...

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