Singing in languages part 2

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. 


the square __ the hypotenuse

One of the choirs I sing in started practicing the chorus of the Major-General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, very slowly, starting with 

with many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.

Hang on, shouldn’t that be on the hypotenuse?  At least, that’s what I’ve always thought it was.

Apparently not. The two books on Gilbert and Sullivan’s operas I have both give of, and the video I linked above has it. But, in general, of and on seem to be interchangeable, with a recent preference for of

There doesn’t seem to be an original Greek form of the theorem, whether formulated by Pythagoras or someone else. If there is a difference, it’s that the square on the hypotenuse is an actual square on an actual side of an actual triangle, and the square of the hypotenuse is a mathematical function of the length of that side. To the ancient Greeks, γεωμετρία (geometria) was literally about measuring the earth.

If you are a singer, use what you conductor provides or tells you. If you are a maths teacher, use what’s in your textbook. If you are anyone else, choose one and don’t worry about it.

Carmen as she is sung

Some years ago, before the internet, there circulated by various means an “English-as-she-is-spoke” synopsis of the opera Carmen, purporting to have come from an opera house in Italy. One version now on the internet runs:

Act 1. Carmen is a cigar-makeress from a tabago factory who loves with Don Jose of the mounting guard. Carmen takes a flower from her corsets and lances it to Don Jose (Duet: ‘Talk me of my mother’). There is a noise inside the tabago factory and the revolting cigar-makeresses burst into the stage. Carmen is arrested and Don Jose is ordered to mounting guard her but Carmen subduces him and he lets her escape.

Act 2. The Tavern. Carmen, Frasquito, Mercedes, Zuniga, Morales. Carmen’s aria (‘The sistrums are tinkling’). Enter Escamillio, a balls-fighter. Enter two smuglers (Duet: ‘We have in mind a business’) but Carmen refuses to penetrate because Don Jose has liberated her from prison. He just now arrives (Aria: ‘Stop, here who comes!’) but hear are the bugles singing his retreat. Don Jose will leave and draws his sword. Called by Carmen shrieks the two smuglers interfere with her but Don Jose is bound to dessert, he will follow into them (final chorus: ‘Opening sky wandering life’).

Act 3. A roky landscape, the smuglers shelter. Carmen sees her death in cards and Don Jose makes a date with Carmen for the next balls fight.

Act 4. A place in Seville. Procession of balls-fighters, the roaring of the balls is heard in the arena. Escamillio enters (Aria and chorus: ‘Toreador, toreador, all hail the balls of a Toreador’). Enter Don Jose (Aria: ‘I do not threaten, I besooch you’) but Carmen repels him wants to join with Escamillio now chaired by the crowd. Don Jose stabbs her (Aria: ‘Oh rupture, rupture, you may arrest me, I did kill her’) he sings ‘Oh my beautiful Carmen, my subductive Carmen.’

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Carmen and James Taylor

One of the choirs I sing in sang two concerts with another community choir – last week on our turf and this week on theirs. Our choir sang excerpts from Carmen, which we will be singing in a concert performance later this year. Our conductor plugged the concert several times. After the concert, a man asked me “Is the opera in English?”. I said “No, it’s all in French”. He said “Oh, I don’t understand French”. (Neither does most of the choir, but that doesn’t stop us singing it.) I said “There’ll be a good explanation in the program, and you can find information on the internet”. He asked “What’s it about, basically?”. I thought for a moment then said “Boy meets girl. Girl meets other boy. Boy fights other boy. Boy kills girl.” He said “I know that story”.

Most of the other choir and some of mine had dinner at a local pub. One of the other choir’s singers said to me “You look like James Taylor”. I said “Oh” because no-one has said that before. Then I thought she said “And you sing like him too”, so I said “Oh thank you”. (I wasn’t sure how she’d heard me closely enough to think that.) She said “I said ‘Can you sing like him too?’”. I said “I don’t know”. And I may never know.

^ James Taylor or me

^ or maybe I look like this!

On the plaza

One of the choirs I sing in has just started rehearsing for a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen later this year. As part of my diligent preparation, I’m watching a full performance on Youtube, sung in French but subtitled in Spanish.

The first words in French are Sur la place (usually /plas/ but in the opera /pla·sə/) and in Spanish Por la plaza. The English translation provided by our conductor gives On the square, which a) is rather prosaic, and b) doesn’t fit the melody. If the opera was sung in English, this would have to be On the plaza (or possibly (not) In the main street).

English place, French place, Spanish plaza and Italian piazza are all derived from Latin platēa, street, courtyard, area and Greek plateîa broad street and  platýs broad, flat, as in platypus (broad foot). Plaza is now a full English word, and piazza would be understood by many English speakers but is probably not a full English word, while French place is not an English word and by itself would probably not be understood by many English speakers.

I might call the main square of Brussels /ɡʁɑ̃ plas/ or “the main square”, but not “the /plas/” and certainly not “the place” (“I’ll meet you at the place”).

Compare sur la plage (on the beach) which is certainly not English. 

1004 angels

Driving home from my sister’s house this afternoon, my wife suddenly said “Angel”. I said “What?”. She said “That house”. I said “What about that house?”. She said “Cheon-sa” (which I know is the Korean word for angel. I said “What about it?”. She said “That house has the number 1004. Cheon-sa.” Okay, okay, I’ll get Korean puns eventually.

Some Korean (actually Sino-Korean) numbers are pronounced the same as real words, or parts of real words. Il (one) can also be day or work, i (two) can also be this or the surname Lee. (There is nothing unusual about this – English one can also be won, and two can be to or too). With no context, it is impossible to know whether cheon-sa is 1004 or angel.

Even in context, it might be ambiguous. In the “Catalogue Aria” of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Leporello lists the Don’s sexual encounters, ending “In Spain, one thousand and three ”. So he can presumably say to the next one “You are my cheon-sa”. If he knew Korean and if he wasn’t dead by the end of the opera.