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Librettist Amanda Holden: Translating opera is the art of making ever y syllable count

Claire Booth and James Laing in the Royal Opera House’s production of Handel’s Berenice, which was sung in English, at Linbury Theatre in March 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton Claire Booth and James Laing in the Royal Opera House’s production of Handel’s Berenice, which was sung in English, at Linbury Theatre in March 2019. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Translating an opera into English is a major responsibility, according to librettist Amanda Holden, as it can make or break the flow. A translator has to hear what’s on the page and ensure the new words fit the music like a glove…

Does the old argument about the merits of opera in the original language versus in translation still need to be fought? It certainly isn’t going to find a solution. We have different versions of opera, and they happily exist side by side. But the boring old controversy still turns up pretty regularly. Times and tastes change. As recently as the 1950s, Glyndebourne was the only opera house that performed in the original language. At every other company – including Covent Garden, Sadler’s Wells and Carl Rosa touring – singers, who were usually British, performed in English.

However, the founding staff of Glyndebourne, in the 1930s, were refugees from Nazi Germany, and they regularly called upon international singers to come and spend the summer working in Sussex, so it became a natural home for work sung in its original language.

Today, opera here flourishes on myriad stages and screens, sung in the original language with surtitles, or in English. English National Opera sticks to the vernacular policy established by its founder, Lilian Baylis, while the other subsidised companies, the Royal Opera House, Opera North, Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera and Opera Northern Ireland, generally sing the classic repertoire in its original language. But they sometimes perform in translation too. The Royal Opera House’s recent Monteverdi operas at London’s Roundhouse, Shostakovich’s The Nose on its main stage, and Handel’s Berenice in the smaller Linbury Theatre, were all sung in English.

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The national houses are complemented by many smaller companies that perform in various venues – in English. Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company is one, whose work is performed by professionals alongside untrained members of the local community. There is Streetwise Opera, with professional and homeless performers, Music Theatre Wales, which tours UK premieres of contemporary works, the King’s Head in London – and others that keep pub opera alive and kicking with updated versions – Tête à Tête, an experimental company that produces new commissions, and there is even Silent Opera, heard on headphones. Opera in English is unlikely to be phased out.

Others have moved towards using original language with surtitles, an easier option, and the purveyors of summer opera, Holland Park, Garsington, Grange Park and the Grange, all perform original librettos. But comedy with titles doesn’t ever work – just as well there are very few funny operas. Hearing the original libretto has a particular flavour, you can usually recognise a few words and, after all, no one needs to understand each and every word whatever language they are in.

Let’s remember that the words are written as much for the actor-singers as for the audience, who will never be able to make out all the words in ensembles anyway. A great example of this comes in Verdi’s Falstaff – that most brilliant of Shakespearean operas, where nine singers sing together, each with a different text explaining their separate points of view.

If there used to be a problem with sung translations, it might have been because the words were old-fashioned and sounded clunky. A few decades ago, at my first visit to Carmen at Covent Garden, I heard: “Toreador now guard thee, Toreador, Toreador… / Bear thou in mind when combat thee elates / Two dark eyes fondly regard thee / And love is your reward.”

Maybe slightly mannered English was acceptable then; now it isn’t. Now, when you go to the theatre and hear a play in translation, you don’t usually think about the translator behind the work, and few care to know who has written it. And yet it is hugely important in making the work flow.

We translators are chameleon-like writers who must match the original’s inflexion, sense, rhyme, clarity and singability. It was great to rewrite those lines I heard in Carmen so long ago: “Toreador be ready, Toreador, Toreador… / And think of this before you draw your sword / Two dark eyes watch you fight / And love is your reward.”

Composers have always wanted audiences to understand the words. How could it be otherwise? Britten wanted his works translated for performances abroad; Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in German for a popular audience in Vienna, rather than the ‘elite’ audience for his operas on Da Ponte’s Italian texts (Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così…).

Italian composers of the 19th century, including Rossini, Donizetti and Verdi, all wrote operas to French texts for their Paris premieres, Verdi commissioned English translations of Otello and Falstaff for their London premieres; I have the Tosca translation (published by Ricordi) that my grandmother heard in London in 1905 on my desk, and even Wagner was certain that Lohengrin would go down in Australia best in English, though he didn’t, of course, go there.

An opera translator must hear what’s on the page, and try to ensure that the new words fit the music like a glove

An opera translator must hear what’s on the page, and try to ensure that the new words – written to be sung and heard, not read or said – fit the music like a glove. This has to include stresses, rhymes, allowing for the singer’s needs – phrasing, breathing – and remembering the problems of the words ‘going over’ in a large space. It’s a major responsibility and rather challenging work, but a wonderful way to discover a great work of art. And eventually, in rehearsals, a librettist/translator becomes a collaborator in real time, no longer sitting alone with a pile of dictionaries, but working with the singers, director and conductor, and being inspired by them.

One must be ready to rewrite – even one syllable can make all the difference – and to be as responsible to the singers and the audience as to the composer and original librettist. The demands across the centuries of, say, Monteverdi’s or Puccini’s Italian, Rameau’s or Bizet’s French and Wagner’s unusual German, are all as unique as their music.

Lyrics and texts for the musical theatre deserve to be heard and not read. But let’s decide that expediency should be the guide to using translation or not. The recent La Forza del Destino at the Royal Opera House, with a cast of international stars, could never have been sung in English. The words are vehicles for the music so, as long as opera is great musical theatre, anything goes. But when it is in English, maybe spare a thought for the writer who took it there.

Amanda Holden is an Olivier-award-winning musician, lyricist and translator. Her English version of Hans Abrahamsen’s The Snow Queen will premiere in December

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