Several months ago, one of my wonderful nieces attended a Celtic festival. She posted on social media: “Unpopular and controversial opinion: people shouldn’t sing solo on stage in languages they do not speak”. I commented: “Almost every opera and lieder singer?”
Strictly speaking, lieder singers (possibly lied singers, compare song singers) only ever sing in German, but let’s expand the repertoire to at least Italian, French and German, and maybe Spanish. Opera singers can easily add Czech and Russian, and modern operas have incorporated Sanskrit (Glass, Satyagraha), Ancient Egyptian, Akkadian and Biblical Hebrew (Glass, Akhnaten), probably Palestinian Arabic and Modern Hebrew (Adams, The death of Klinghoffer) and maybe Mandarin Chinese (Adams, Nixon in China).
Choral singers also clock up languages, probably even more so, because there are larger or smaller choral works in languages in which there are no operas. In my last post, I talked about a recent concert in which we sang in English, liturgical Greek, liturgical Latin, Church Slavonic and Latvian. I forgot to mention that the women also sang in French.
Another choir I sing in (a perfectly ordinary suburban community choir) is preparing a concert with pieces in English, mediaeval Galician-Portuguese, Italian, Latin, modern Hebrew, Māori and Quechua. And our conductor wonders why we are looking so worried as we sing.
In addition to the above, I have also sung in concerts in Welsh, Spanish, biblical Hebrew and Korean that I can easily think of, and as read-throughs of at least one South African language. I sure there’s more. I speak exactly none of those. If I only sang the language(s) I speak, I’d be limited to English.
It may not matter all that much since there are so many instances of singing in English where one (that is, a native English speaker) can barely understand what is being sung (most notably in choral performances).
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Most choirs include the English texts in their printed programs alongside the texts in other languages.