THIS ISN'T OVER UNTIL I UNDERSTAND WHAT THE FAT LADY IS SINGING

I live in a house where opera scores are often seen tossed about the house waiting to be studied.  I am grateful to the national regional opera circuit for effectively helping to pay my mortgage each month by employing my wife in satisfying work as a stage director. Opera, I appreciate you.

But can someone explain to me why it is acceptable in opera circles to come away from a performance that you have seen sung in your native language and say, “Well, that was pretty good, I got about 70% of what they said.”

I have seen a couple of operas recently performed in my native language (English, though you probably wouldn’t guess it from some of the drivel I write, of course), and I have come away really feeling a distance because I struggle to understand lyrics that are being sung.  I’m not going to presume that this is the case with all opera that has been written in my native language because I can’t speak from a huge place of authority. As I stated earlier, I appreciate opera, but that doesn’t qualify me as an expert.

I think it’s important, however, to explain what my relationship with opera is, because I think I am very important to the future of opera.  I assume I am exactly the type of person that opera companies struggling for new audiences want; a guy who can actually imagine a day in the not so distant future when leisure time and more disposal income is a real part of my life.  Now is the time to turn me on to the magic of opera so I can chose to spend my money on that rather than silly old plays by Shakespeare or something when I’m free to make more choices about what I do with my unplanned time.

I’ve had discussions with my wife who works in the opera field about this dilemma—I don’t understand what the singers are saying when I’m watching an opera performed in the language I speak.  She is very good at explaining to me that it is often difficult for a singer to create the sound they need to create in the music and pronounce words crisply and clearly.  Surely a sound point, but I’m still stymied.

What should the expectation for an audience be when they are watching a performance of any art form that uses the native language of the audience in any manner as part of the performance?  Should a clear expression of language be an essential element of that performance?  Having worked in theatre myself for the bulk of my professional life, I know that language and movement are somewhat equal partners in the execution of a play or musical theatre piece.  I believe that the perfect marriage of elements in a theatre piece is when movement supports language and an audience hears the words being said as well as the words in between the lines (often the most important words of all).

But opera, at least the ones I’ve taken in recently and through my past experiences as an audience member, doesn’t seem to put a premium on the clarity of language in performance.  The sacrifice of language in performance can be attributed to the technical demands of the voice, but is that a short-sighted stick in the ground imposed by the creators of opera?  I read and hear about opera companies struggling for new audiences.  Isn’t a good way to appeal to new audiences to speak to them in ways that they feel, hear and understand?  As a lover of language myself, I put a high value on a well-crafted phrase.  Marry that with a tune and I should be a sucker for it.  But opera continues to leave me feeling cold.

I appreciate you opera, but I want to care more.  Why should I let a thing like not understanding words be a thing I can overlook? Explain it to me…and remember, I’m a little dense and like to hear all the words so sing it clear as you can, okay?