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:
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.