Wagner in English

I was looking for some of Nina Stemme’s recordings, and among them I discovered one of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer . . . in English. Another Chandos “opera in English” recording. This just seems wrong. I mean, I love English as much as the next person. I think it’s terrific. I even like the spelling. But the idea of Wagner in English just seems wrong, somehow. (Which makes me wonder about Wagner in, say, French. Would that be better or worse than Wagner in English?)

26 thoughts on “Wagner in English

  1. Not to say tricky, from a translation pov, since you have to match the text to the placement of leitmotifs in the score. cf Andrew Porter’s Ring trans.


  2. I rather like Wagner in English. I think the Goodall Ring cycle in the Porter translation is rather brilliant. I was at the Coliseum on one of the nights they were recording The Rhinegold. Porter’s English is decidedly less odd than Wagner’s German.


    1. Maybe I’ll give the abovementioned Hollander recording a shot. Gut feelings are not always to be trusted – and besides, I think I’d like to hear Stemme sing Senta, even if it’s not in German.


  3. I’ve not yet heard Wagner in English, however JK in his recent Lohengrin interview ( http://tinyurl.com/rnrJKinterview ) suggested that students learn a bit of Wagner in Italian when starting out. I’ve been looking for Wagner excerpts in Italian, particularly from Lohengrin. It’s difficult to find anything recorded after about 1935, though there are some good examples on YT. In a related note, I have a post coming up of some of Nozze di Figaro in German.

    Back in the dark ages of my life I participated in an opera group that did all performances in English. I think there is a lot to be said for singing an opera in the (primary) language of the audience. The Germans and Italians (at least) did it for years! Of course there is just as much or more to be said about singing works in the original language, depending on how meticulous the composer was about his/her word setting. I think we have all heard examples of how difficult it is to make a translation that is poetic, faithful to the original, and still singable.

    Of course, then there’s the argument that opera singers singing English are usually very difficult to understand anyway.


    1. Pre surtitles, I was a huge fan of opera in English. Surtitles change the game of course but there’s a case, especially for comedies, for a language where the audience gets the timing of the words to the music. German to English isn’t too difficult to come up with a good, singable translation. Italian poses more problems.


      1. Oh, and JK wasn’t advocating performing Wagner in Italian at all. He commented that the music of Lohengrin has an Italian flavor. He suggests first discovering the musical line with the more forgiving consonants, then carrying that line and lyrical feel over when singing in German. In other words, Wagner in Italian as a learning exercise, not as a performance practice.


        1. I heard Le Nozze di Figaro in English once, and it seemed to work – although I didn’t have as much experience with opera in general then as I do now, so my reaction at this point might be different.

          That’s an interesting point about translation as a learning exercise – I never thought of that.


          1. That’s how I learned Nozze. (I was going to be in the chorus, but got appendicitis about a week before the performances!) I reflexively hear the English words any time anyone sings!


  4. opera in any other language than that which the composer used as a base for his composition should simply be banned. Every note and tune has its origin in the melody of the language it was based upon. Wagner in Italian makes as much sense as Le Nozze di Figaro in German.


      1. I’m thinking about some Russian, Czech, and Hungarian works that may never have made it out of Russia, the Czech Republic, or Hungary if SOMEone hadn’t presented them in a different language.

        (Also,I just found a recording of Fritz Wunderlich, who sang almost exclusively in German, singing Lensky’s big aria from Eugene Onegin. I’d hate to have missed that simply because he’s not singing in Russian!)


            1. I don’t know – I just checked Wikipedia, and it’s not clear. They revived their 1978 production (which was in English) in the 1990s but I don’t know if they used the same English version or not.


        1. I have a soft spot for the Italian version, because it’s the first one I heard (although my favorite performance on DVD uses the French version.) Is the reason you like the French one a translation issue?


          1. Italian versions were my first, too, there WAS no French version on record until the Abbado recording came out (c. 1989). I like the French bc it hews a bit closer to Schiller, and also in general I think it sounds better. The Italian translation does have some shoe-horning moments when it comes to the vocal line.

            And, Regie or Not Regie, though you have a definite point about what linguistic accessibility can do for repertoire, on the whole I tend to agree with Suzanne, particularly when it comes to Janacek, which sounds terrible in English and really undercuts what Janacek was trying to do.


            1. I would have to concur on Janacek, who, most of all composers, strove to match the music to the words. And I am not advocating ONLY singing repertoire in the vernacular. Just maybe sometimes in certain situations, or to get a work to the public that might not otherwise hear it. For example: do Bartered Bride in English the first season, then do it in Czech the next time, after people realize how wonderful the music is. (Although BB is a problematic argument, since Smetana actually authorized a German translation and for the first many years of its life the opera was probably best known in German.)

              But I think to say NEVER sing a work in another language is rather dire proclamation. This isn’t opera, but I have heard strong and convincing arguments for singing Brahms’ German Requiem in English for English-speaking audiences. After all, one of Brahms’ points was to create a work that his audience could understand (i.e., not in Latin).


            2. I’ll have to pay more attention to the text next time I listen to Don Carlos – although my (rudimentary) Italian is better than my French, so the difference may end up being at least partially lost on me.


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