“From Virtue’s Tiles” : Accents

So I was watching a DVD of Handel’s Theodora, one from Salzburg, filmed in 2009. Theodora in this instance is Christine Schäfer, whose moving performance was somewhat blighted by a weird sound-recording issue on the DVD, but more about that later. Schäfer is German and when she sings in English her accent is hard to miss. During the section in Part III where Theodora shows up to offer herself for death alongside Didymus, the words seemed on the verge of tripping her up.

The first recording of this opera oratorio I ever listened to involved native speakers of English – fellow Murkins, if my memory is correct – in nearly all the main roles, so for the most part understanding was not an issue. More recently I heard it performed by a gaggle of Anglophones and a solitary German. In that case, I occasionally registered the solitary German’s accent, but most of the time I wasn’t thinking about it and I didn’t find it intrusive. With Schäfer, I found myself noticing a little bit more – she and Bernarda Fink (Irene) both occasionally engaged in pronunciations that were odd enough to snap me out of attention to the performance, e.g. Irene’s line “So from virtuous toil well-borne” in the “As with rosy steps the morn” aria.

They can be seen here, thinking about diction:

Theodora and Irene think about English

Most operas are not in English so this is not an experience I have very often. I can sometimes hear accents in other languages, but it has to be pretty obvious for me to notice it, and I can usually ignore it.

But either way, I’m on the fence about how much difference it makes. I know it drives some people nuts when vowels are wrong or singers take original and groundbreaking approaches to things like “wh” or diphthongs or come down like Olympic gymnasts on certain consonants (i.e. they stick the landing, but you can tell it took some practice). And if it breaks one’s attention to the music, then it’s an issue – provided that one objects to having one’s attention broken in this particular way. I actually tend to find it kind of interesting. Up to a point, anyway.

Also, on the general subject of Theodora, I mentioned a while back a friend who does not like David Daniels’s voice. I was able more recently to wring out additional specifics:

Me: He sounds like a what?

F: He sounds like if there were a countertenor muppet, Daniels would be the voice.

Me: David Daniels sounds like a muppet.

F: A hypothetical countertenor muppet. There’s a difference.

Me: I don’t hear the muppet.

F: I know. It’s ok.

Keep in mind that this is a person who claims that the first time he heard Theodora singing about the “captive’s ransom, the poor man’s wealth . . . from thee I would receive” he started giggling.

1. Critical reactions to music: often quite idiosyncratic.

2. Some people are so weird.

12 thoughts on ““From Virtue’s Tiles” : Accents

  1. I didn’t find the sound to be off on the DVD but I only listened to the DTS track.

    I’ve only been bothered by odd accents in English language opera a few times. Alfred Muff’s Balstrode is decidedly odd anfd the La Scala chorus rather butchered Peter Grimes. Come to think of it La Bartoli does sound a bit odd in English too.

    I am seeing Mr. Daniels live on Saturday. I shall listen carefully for muppetishness.


    1. I’m still not sure what F. meant with the ‘muppet’ quality – Daniels isn’t my favorite countertenor ever, but I’ve certainly enjoyed listening to him many times.

      The sound issue may be a product of my computer and/or my speakers rather than the stereo track on the DVD – it has that “this soundlevel is too loud for the speakers” quality. Though the speakers are usually pretty ok in most cases.


  2. I wouldn’t say it’s hypothetical, as Beaker is clearly a countertenor. Though I wouldn’t ever confuse him with David Daniels. Probably.


  3. This is a interesting point of accents I have really not thought before. In my native language I almost always get perfect accents, as Finnish language is only sung by Finns. Or very rarely by someone non-Finnish, in which case it is a question about understanding anything rather than being bothered by accents (although ASvO has been really good in Finnish as well).

    I wonder what native Italians or Germans think about all the accent they hear?


      1. I heard a recording of John Blow’s ode on the death of Henry Purcell sung by two French countertenors (or maybe one French and one Belgian – something like that). Good performance, but I did find the strong accents distracting.


      1. I like to listen to German-language interviews with American singers, because their accents are often terrible and I can understand them.


        1. I had the same experience reading English Jesuit records when I was doing research. In many cases their Latin was not the best – all the sentences had English sentence structure and word order. It was great.


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