Sunday, 19 March 2017

Opera: it's all Welsh to me

The promotional material for the Welsh National Opera (WNO) spring programme has turned up.

The WNO in Spring 2017
The companys staging Madame Butterfly. It seems the “much loved WNO production of Puccini’s tale of love and betrayal returns for limited performances”. I was a little disappointed. After all, they’re charging full price for the tickets, so it strikes me they could fully commit to the production. A limited performance? Count me out.

The WNO is the Welsh equivalent of the English National Opera (ENO), a fine opera company that stages its productions in English. 

Yes, you read that correctly. The statement applies to both companies. You thought the WNO might stage its performances in Welsh? Think again.

There are some 53 million people living in England. Tacked on to the northern end of the country, for now (at least until the next independence referendum), there are nearly 6 million Scots. Pretty much all the Scots speak English, or some dimly recognisable variant of it, and little else. Even within Wales, only about half a million of the 3 million people speak Welsh at all. 

It’s my belief that few even of those really speak it. They can probably pronounce Llanelli correctly, but I doubt they could give you directions in Welsh for how to get there (and why would you want them to, anyway?)

So, the WNO sings in English. And why does that matter? Anyone who answered, “so we can understand the words” can go right to the back of the class. No one understands the words in opera. That’s why they have supertitles, spelling out the words in a great banner above the stage.

And that helps? If you answered “yes”, you really aren’t doing well in this class.

Understanding the words in opera does nothing to improve comprehension. It merely replaces the question, “what are they saying?” by a still more baffling, “why are they bothering to say it?” In opera, it’s best to leave a desire for understanding at the door and just enjoy the music.

That works fine if it isn’t Wagner. Mark Twain, right about so many things, was spot on when he said that, “Wagner's music is better than it sounds.” I once went to a performance of the Ring cycle – the whole thing, four sessions, fourteen hours – and I can confirm Twain’s view.

I say “once” not just because it’s not an experience that I’ve been gasping to repeat in the intervening three or four decades, but because I was surrounded by people for whom it clearly wasn’t a joy to be indulged in only once. At the interval, they were all talking about how that year’s performance compared with last year’s (poorly, apparently) and reminiscing over great productions of the past, in some cases ten or more years previously. 

Wagner, apparently, doesn’t attract appreciation, but worship.

If you’re stuck, as I was, with appreciation, you’re in for a tough time. I spent the first couple of hours hoping for an aria to come along, and then the next twelve trying to adapt to the notion that none was going to, a sense fully confirmed when the final curtain fell.

Still. If they’d been singing in English I don’t imagine the experience would have been any less obscure for me than it was in German.

Why, I could have coped with Welsh and been no less enlightened.

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