Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Opera libretti and other sad stories

Writer Ron Rosenbaum has a long piece on Adams' recent opera Doctor Atomic, in which he takes exception to the opera's poorly-written libretto. (Thanks to The Penitent Wagnerite for the link.) I can't judge Doctor Atomic for myself, having never seen the opera - although I was less than impressed by the excerpt posted recently by Alex Ross - but I've heard enough similar criticisms to believe Rosenbaum that the libretto is severely flawed. What interests me, though, is why operagoers don't see this as a problem. Rosenbaum, rather cynically, suggests that the members of the audience at the Metropolitan are there to congratulate themselves on their own intelligence and good taste. Accepting the faults of the libretto, therefore, would be an implicit admission that they're wasting their time, that they have been hoodwinked, and so they blind themselves to the obvious problems right in front of their noses. I don't agree, obviously, and would like to point out some more realistic possibilities.

First, and most obvious, is the fact that most operas are in other languages than English. The translation blinds us to whatever faults, or virtues, the original libretto might have once had. Once translated and put up on surtitles, all opera libretti become equally stilted and awkward. Sometimes the effect is bathetic, as in a production I once say of Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande: "I am not happy," sobs Melisande, who has just been verbally abused by her husband for losing her wedding ring. Being a regular operagoer, however, requires you to get over this awkwardness of expression. You learn to separate the music of the opera from the texts; the former is of high quality and high importance, while the latter is a mere aid to help you comprehend the action. To sum up: since the advent of surtitles, opera audiences have been trained to expect opera texts to be poorly written, and to compensate for this.

Writing as Samuel Marchbanks, Robertson Davies inveighed against the low literary quality of the translated texts at art-song recitals, and tried to imagine how an English song like "Drink to me only with thine eyes" would be translated for an Italian-speaking audience:
Let us agree, when drinking, to employ the eyeballs only; similarly with kisses. I sent you some flowers recently, and you sent them back after breathing on them; they are still alive but are now imbued with your own personal odour.
A second, related point is that an alarming number of composers have a tin ear for poetry. Here's an example from the "In taberna" movement of Carmina Burana:
Parum sexcente nummate
durant, cum immoderate
bibunt omnes sine meta.

[Word-for-word translation]
Few of six hundred coins
last, with immoderation
drinks everyone without limit.
If you know the work, you'll remember that this comes close to the end of the movement; each line ending is punctuated by a short, snappy orchestral interlude with lots of percussion. Musically, it's very exciting, but in terms of Latin text setting, it's terrible - Orff steamrolls through each line, without care for the terrified punctuation marks that lie in his path, and then adds huge breaks at each line ending despite the fact that the sense of the text continues onwards.

I chose a Latin example because it's supposed to be an easy language to set well - but Orff absolutely destroys any logical sense the text might originally have had. A persistent myth still exists in the musical world that English is extraordinarily difficult to set well, but it's not, and as Exhibit A I offer you the entire corpus of English cathedral music. Whatever you may think about the music of Stanford, Howells, etc., I would argue that an essential characteristic of their music is this exacting care in text setting, inherited from the Tudor polyphonists. Every accented syllable is in its appropriate place, every comma is observed, and the sense of the text is carefully matched to the musical form. And so, when Benjamin Britten came to writing operas, he didn't have far to look for models of English text setting. Which is why it annoyed me so much to read John Adams's disparaging comments about Britten's "stilted" text setting - it's Adams, with his subjugation of textual sense to the needs of postminimalist process, whose text setting is mannered.

The appallingly low standard of vocal text setting in contemporary music is one of my continual hobbyhorses, and so I fear that I've gotten far away from my original point, which is simply this: composers frequently butcher the texts they try to set. When punctuation marks are ignored, accented syllables are not placed in appropriate places in the bar, and the text is generally rendered unintelligible both from a phonetic and semantic perspective, we get out of the habit of listening to the text at all.

The upshot of all of this, unfortunately, is that attending vocal performances trains listeners to scan the text for general sense but not to try to follow it or to judge its literary quality. If we don't understand the language being set, we have to follow an awkward and often bathetic translation; if we do understand the language, the text setting often makes it impossible for us to follow. So why is it surprising that millions of listeners saw nothing unusual in an opera with a poorly-written libretto? And who better than Ron Rosenbaum, an outsider to the opera scene, to point out the problem?


Chris Foley said...

Why can't American opera companies workshop libretti like Canadian companies do? It takes a lot of the risk out of the production and gives composers a much more focused text with which to work.

sfmike said...

The libretto is actually sort of interesting, and nothing new for the Sellars-Adams team. They prepped for it with similar efforts with the oratorios/operas "El Nino" and "A Flowering Tree."

I too was distressed by the quote from Adams about Britten because in truth I adore the music of both composers and I think BOTH of them set English to music brilliantly. It's what sets them apart as extraordinary opera composers, so maybe there's some Oedipal nonsense going on with Adams vis a vis Britten.

The music to "Doctor Atomic," by the way, is just plain extraordinary and is going to live forever.

Andrew W. said...

Although I agree with what you're saying, the pedant in me has to mention that your Pelléas example isn't the best one because that's what she says in French, "je ne suis pas heureuse."

But the surtitles exacerbate these things, don't they? I really don't like them, to be honest.

To your larger point, I think your charitable response is more on the mark than Ron Rosenbaum's.

Osbert Parsley said...

Interesting comments all around. Andrew is of course completely correct, now that I think about it - "I am not happy" is the literal translation of the Maeterlinck original. Still, I think there's a big difference between the two - to my English ears, the translation sounds so much more pedestrian, more matter-of-fact than the French original. And writing it down in huge letters for the audience to look at makes the problem ten times worse.

Chris makes a good point about the need to workshop opera libretti. In the case of Adams, I think his status as a composer is such that people are no longer so rigorous about putting his work through those sorts of processes - he and Sellars are now used to working together and producing one opera after another. I think that here, again, Adams could take a lesson from Britten: in his youth, Britten was heavily influenced by W. H. Auden, and set a number of Auden's texts to music, but he quickly discovered that the influence was becoming stifling, and he went his own way with other librettists. This speaks to Mike's point, I think - strong artistic personalities like Adams and Sellars do not always necessarily make the best collaborators!

Of course, this is only an outsider's view - I still haven't seen the complete opera, and although I enjoy Adams's music in general, I can't claim great familiarity.