Opera Performances in English: Genius or Blasphemy?

Every opera house I know of, save huge houses like the Met, is struggling. There is very little money to be made in opera right now, and the little that is there is vastly dwindling. The main audience for opera is still mostly older white people, and goodness knows that’s not a sustainable audience.

My Fair Lady, Eliza Doolittle

Not that I’d EVER complain about seeing an opera with Eliza Doolittle.

One of the most controversial moves by opera houses to get more people through the door is putting on productions of different works translated into English. This isn’t to say that the operas have English subtitles projected above the screen — these are guts-out, fully translated works from the original Italian, German, or whatever. These translations also usually imply a modern English interpretation of the original text. “Cankerblossom” becomes “slut,” and “jest” becomes “joke.” But surprisingly, I’ve never seen an English translation version of an opera also have a modern setting. In my own experience, they’ve tended to have the most by-the-book settings and costumes, more often than not.

Who are these performances for? They’re often touted as “starter” operas, i.e. more popular and timeless operas often used to introduce people to the traditions and tropes of opera. The idea is that by removing the language barrier, going to the opera will be less intimidating for people who have never done so. The elitism sometimes associated with speaking multiple languages (warranted or not) can be bypassed, and you have a whole new crowd coming through the doors.

prom, prom dresses, people leaving for prom

Yeah, we’re heading to “La Traviata.” And totally sneaking flasks past the security guards.

Naturally, opera purists can get very upset about translations of the original libretto. Something is slightly unsettling about translation in general, because the original feelings and ideas that went into the writing of the text are filtered to a certain degree. It’s not like backwards compatibility in video games, where exact duplications of the original work are displayed in new ways. The end result is not as in-your-face as the original, because there’s a silent emissary between you and the author. The most sacred principle of fine art, Original Intent, is sacrificed for the sake of accessibility.

I would feel like a traitor though, if I condemned English translations completely. My inaugural opera was an English translation of The Barber of Seville, translated so much that it even used contemporary slang (i.e. “My love, we’re toast). It makes me cringe now, but it definitely fascinated me as a middle schooler looking for a beacon of culture in her small town. That’s the tricky thing — when it comes to attracting new opera fans, should we really be complaining about anything that draws them in? There is a clear and respectful argument (sometimes said very eloquently) for presenting operas in the native language of the audience at hand. And with luck, people drawn in by what they hear in an English translation of an opera will stay for the non-English productions.

Twilight, Twilight fans, fans waiting, waiting in line for a movie

If there were “Team Siegfried” and “Team Wotan” shirts being printed and purchased somewhere, opera’s problems would be over.

But then again, maybe they won’t. By introducing English translations into the ethos, the temptation to dumb operas down for common consumption grows ever stronger. This isn’t the same as modern-day stagings of classic operas — those are wonderful treasures that (with luck) appease both opera purists and people looking for something more fresh and exciting than what they watched with their grandma on PBS back in the day. When you translate an opera into another language, you’re creating a completely different product. And people may not like the original after they’ve had the second version.

I understand the urge to produce translated operatic works. Opera houses hardly have any money, and it’s perfect incentive to try and fight the most troublesome stereotypes opera has accumulated over the years. When you’re in a pinch, it helps to repent your sins. But is overcorrecting a true solution? Probably not. As someone who owes her interest in opera to an English translation, I can say with confidence that the art form can do better than that. We can do awesome new takes on opera, making them visually appealing for people who aren’t accustomed to seeing a classical performance in an opera house. If directors insist on producing something in English, there are plenty of wonderful operas originally written in English. People can (and will) come to the opera house if there are splendid productions to see. Whether or not it is in their naive language may not be as important as once thought.

About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

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2 thoughts on “Opera Performances in English: Genius or Blasphemy?

  1. Mayaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa June 26, 2013 at 2:47 am Reply

    For someone who is not a huge opera fan, this was really interesting. Never realized this was such a contentious issue. I wonder though, if those who make a huge fuss about English translations are only contributing to the stereotype that opera is for stuffy rich white people. Anyway, nice work! This blog is pretty sweet.

    • The Opera Snob June 26, 2013 at 8:33 pm Reply

      Aw, thanks! But yes, this actually is a huge divider between opera fans. While I don’t think disapproving of English translations is snooty, I definitely see where you’re going from. I’m just hoping that more non-dumbed-down English translations get put out, so I can be proven wrong and more people come around. 🙂

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