by Juliana Rambaldi
It’s a lucky thing I turned out to be an opera singer. I love singing, and I love learning languages. Luckily for me, opera singing is all about voice and language.
Opera comes in a variety of flavors, but most of the great works are written in Italian, German, and French, with some important pieces in English, Russian and Czech. It’s vital to be able to sing and be understood in the top 3 (although admittedly, it’s hard to understand the words when we hit those high notes in a 3,000-seat theater).
Opera is music and drama, and the words propel the action of the play. That’s why it’s important that we know enough of the language to know what we’re singing, and which words need emphasis. Without that, the performance lacks specificity. We can use dictionaries to try to fill in the gaps, but, if we don’t have at least some knowledge of how the language works, a dictionary is going to be of limited use.
At a minimum, we have to be able to pronounce the languages correctly, even if we have no working knowledge of it. That’s why most university opera programs offer courses in “French Pronunciation for Singers”, and the like. Sometimes, pronunciation must be altered for vocal reasons. For example, if I’m singing in French, I may leave out some of the nasality in the upper range of my voice, because that affects my vocal technique and the quality of my voice. Singing classical music in English can be surprisingly tricky – we have to think through the diphthongs, and get the consonants out in the front of the mouth.
Then there’s the small issue of which language we’re working in. Most opera professionals work internationally, and it’s important to be conversant in English, German and Italian, or at least two out of those three. A few years back, I was in rehearsals for a major American opera house with an Italian conductor and a German stage director. The rehearsals were in Italmanish. It’s all fun and games until someone puts an eye out.
I found my love of languages early in life – at age 8, I spent nine months in public school in Vienna, Austria, and spoke German at a pretty high level by the end of my stay. My parents had tried to get me into an American school, but there was no room, which, in retrospect, was the best thing that could have happened to me. I took French in junior high and high school, and Italian in college.
I find that there are predictable stages to learning languages. Since the languages I study are European, there are always similarities to the other languages I’m familiar with. When I’m first learning a new language, I notice those similarities, and use them as anchors. Then, sometime beyond Italian 103, the dust is on the bubble. I start to notice the idiosyncrasies, the idioms, and odd usages that can trip you up. That’s a tough phase, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at that point. After working through that phase, I start to accept the new language as its own entity, having its own personality. Learning another language is a bit like putting on someone else’s clothes. Once they start to fit, then you know you’re getting close.
You know that joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. The same is true in learning a language. The process is quicker for me if I do at least some work in it every day, especially if I’m not living in the country where it’s spoken.
Nothing advances my skills more than having lengthy conversations with native speakers, so I search out opportunities to force myself on introduce myself to people who are fluent in my target language. That can be scary for some people, because they’re afraid of making mistakes in front of people. When you’re living in a foreign country, believe me, you get used to looking like an idiot, and you overcome your fears quickly. You really must get past that, since you won’t see big improvements until you do. “Use it or lose it” is really true with learning a new language.
I have an arsenal of foreign language aides, electronic and printed: large- and small-format dictionaries, verb conjugation books, podcasts, and textbooks. I have technology, and I’m not afraid to use it. I’m currently living in France, and taking French classes again. My current favorite site for French is About.com (www.french.about.com). They have a full collection of grammar lessons, advice on writing business letters in French, and a good e-newsletter.
Language is an integral part of opera, and a real necessity for singing onstage, and for the work process. I feel lucky to be able to blend two of my favorite activities. For me, life has more spark when I’m fumbling around in foreign language, and I highly recommend it as a lifelong pursuit.