It’s half an hour into a performance and you find your self sitting in the audience wondering what on earth they are singing about and if it’s even in English! We’ve all been there. Of course nobody likes to admit this to the person they’re sitting next to. They just cobble together a plot like Sherlock Holmes by piecing together the manic arm waving, heaving sobs and lusty embraces. Unrequited love. That’ll be it. It always is.
But as a paying customer shouldn’t we expect at the very least to understand the text? Is it too much to ask to involve the audience in the scene that is evolving in front of them? Or is it a given that they have come simply to hear shimmering tones, stratospheric coloratura and messa di voce to die for?
Opera is an art form that pushes human ability to the extreme. It takes strength and stamina to fulfil the demands made by the composer. The hours of practise and painstaking attention to detail culminate into a thrilling and mesmeric sound that can move audiences world wide. But what of the text? Sometimes I think that librettists must despair at the unrecognisable sounds that the audience are presented with. Especially having spent hours agonising over the subtle use of language.
Is it possible to have both impressive vocal acrobatics and a decipherable text? For sopranos this is particularly challenging as the singing lies much higher than the natural speaking voice therefore requiring a lot of space. Renee Fleming once said that it is ‘like trying to hold an intelligible conversation while yawning’. I’d have to agree, however this is no excuse for unclear diction when singing on or below the stave.
Clear diction is something that can be instilled into singers at a very early age. After a while, it seeps into a singers muscle memory and becomes a natural part of their singing. It does takes hard work at first and can be very frustrating when you are stopped at every other word in order to put it right but it is worth it. It really is. Audiences will switch off if they don’t understand the words easily enough.
However, it is a balancing act between tone production and clarity of text that will always be there. Composers don’t always take this into consideration so we have to do our best to bring words to the paying public.