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Writers Talk About Writing

Language in the Culture of Opera

Will Berger knows opera. The author of four acclaimed books on the subject, his most recent is Puccini Without Excuses. And when he's not writing about this grand musical tradition, he's talking about it on the radio as a voice of New York's hallowed Metropolitan Opera. So how does Will connect with his audience about a subject that can be, well, a tad intimidating? We had a fascinating conversation with him about language in the world of the opera:

VT: Does opera have its own language?

Will: Just like baseball or NASCAR, opera has a language that you need to know to get anywhere with it. It happens to be a very complex language because it has so many different roots. But most of the lexicon of opera that you need, whether you're a carpenter in an opera house or someone attending a performance, comes from Italian. Actually, there's a lot of Italian in all music. You can talk to a punk musician and eventually you're going to come across some Italian words. There are grammatical reasons for that, it's not just a coincidence.

Music plays the central part in opera, of course, but there is also the performance and the spectacle of the whole thing. There are so many things to talk about and think about, and the words you're going to use to describe all this are going to vary between Italian, English, French and German.

VT: I thought you'd mention Russian, too.

Will: There are many operas in Russian and many people from Russia working in opera but we haven't seen an influx of the Russian language, because the Russian tradition uses French and Italian words, too. Just like in the ballet. The reason French is the international language of ballet is because of the large Russian presence in ballet, not because of the large French presence. You've got weird things like that going on, and all kinds of little cultural wars and language wars happening.

VT: Can you give us another example?

Will: Up until the 1960s reviewers always spoke about the mise-en-scène when referring to the physical production of a performance. But what the heck is the mise-en-scène? And why did it fall out of favor? I don't know why reviewers stopped using it. It's just a French word that means "physical production." It may have had something to do with the culture of the people who write about opera and where they're coming from.

VT: What do you mean?

Will: For a very long time in this country and in this city [New York City], you've had different people participating in the opera for different reasons. Historically you've had Italian and German immigrant communities in New York who were a very large presence in the audience and on the stage. But they weren't the people writing about opera. The people writing about it would have been very Ivy League-Addison DeWitt types who were bringing a very different cultural filter to the performances. And they seemed to like words like mise-en-scène that are out of style now.

Do you know the classic quote from the first paragraph of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence?" The line is an unalterable and unquestioned law of the musical world required that the German text of French operas sung by Swedish artists should be translated into Italian for the clearer understanding of English- speaking audiences.

VT: So how does an American audience make sense of this polyglot world?

Will: First, there are some words you just need to learn, and that's okay because it's true of any avocation. Can you think of a sport or art form where there aren't specialized words? There are some things that only exist in opera, so of course, there are discrete words for them. It's very rare that you need to describe coloratura, a rapid deployment of notes up and down the scale, in jazz singing, for example. It's a technique you're only going to find in the opera, so it'll have an opera-specific word you're not going to come across in everyday life.

The other thing that makes opera challenging is that its two main languages are German and Italian, and those languages don't have a very large presence in America. On top of that, there are words that aren't even proper Italian, or German or French but have just evolved within the opera. Coloratura is a good example. It's actually a German word made to sound like a faux-Italian word.

VT: A German word?

Will: The real Italian word is fioritura, or "flowering." Coloratura only exists in the opera, and singing techniques based on the opera, nowhere else. Another example is the word "overture" which is not an Italian word, but a French word. It was only applied to Italian operas, though, and has a really complicated etymology. It's not just the words in opera but the history of these words that are fascinating. You have people who try to dazzle you with the real obscure opera words -- there's really no limit.

VT: Well, how about dazzling us!

Will: Ha, okay, how about zwischenfach? Lets start with "fach," which every American bites off and chews like an apple, it's so much fun. It means your range, the area that you own vocally. So if you're a lyric soprano, that's your "fach.." Now "zwischen" comes from "zwei,", the number two, so if you cover two fachs, you're zwischenfach, and you'll always work in the opera. That means, for example, you can do soprano and mezzo soprano roles.

We need to talk about the different voice types in opera, but it's very nebulous and subjective. When you go to the opera there's all this wonderful stuff, the orchestra, the set design. But ultimately you have to talk about the voice, the human voice, which is the hardest thing to describe because there are no absolutes. So you have words like zwischenfach and coloratura. And you also have "lyric."

VT: Lyric?

Will: "Lyric" doesn't really mean a thing. "Lyric" originally meant "to be accompanied by a lyre." We're going way back here. It's a word you always hear in music, as in "her new album was more lyrical than the last one." It doesn't really mean anything -- and yet it does take on a meaning. I think what people are getting at when they use the word "lyric" is "pretty." If you say, "She shouldn't be singing that role, she's more of a lyric," opera people will know what you mean.

VT: How do all these foreign and unfamiliar terms affect the work you do communicating about the opera on radio and in print?

Will: My mission is to communicate about opera in such a way that it's both interesting to the greatest know-it-all on the planet and to someone who knows nothing at all. I don't always accomplish this because there are some specialized terms that I simply need to use -- which I can't talk about without defining.

What really struck me working at the Met this season is how very different operas are from each other. Opera goes back 400 years and comes from many different countries. We did a Handel opera and then a brand new one this past season. There was 300 years between these operas, different languages involved, different ways of making music. So when you're talking about opera music, styles, genres and traditions, you must put the words into context.

This gets me thinking about the word verismo. You can't talk about opera without using the word verismo. It is usually translated as "realism," which was a big movement in literature and opera at the turn of the last century. A verismo opera would be characterized by certain things. It would highlight the underside of life; there'd probably be someone screaming at some point instead of singing. So if you want to know why that woman is screaming on stage, you'll say because of the verismo tradition -- and put it into context. People might think, well, your audience is going to glaze over if you say verismo. Maybe, but they need to know it anyway, it's such an indispensable word.

VT: But your explanation brings it to life.

Will: Right, and it's also a word that a lot of opera people use but don't know what they're talking about. So maybe when I'm unpacking verismo for a newcomer I can also change some cognoscente's point of view on it. But that's a tall order and then I end up lecturing -- which doesn't make for good radio.

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