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New ways to vocalize: Lord Byron, an attempt to renew models

To talk of vocalization in opera is perhaps to talk of the great names in the history of music, of those who were able to meet the standards of a model that today is considered an inevitable reference point of what we consider traditional opera. So, starting from the fact that there are a huge number of models that tradition has converted into standard ones, it seems difficult to achieve a new mode of vocal articulation that is at least a little convincing and, above all, one which is comparable to the use of traditional models up to the present time, which embrace practically all western languages.

At the same time, we cannot hide the fact that with reference to Catalan –and consequently Castilian- this problem has not been solved as effectively as it has in opera in Italian, German and French and in opera in English-speaking countries.  I am referring to the ability to make the use of these languages in opera sound as natural as in everyday use. Still today we feel uncomfortable when we hear an opera in Catalan or Castilian, because it could be said that generally speaking, we don’t identify with how these singer/actors express themselves on stage.

While the Italian or German opera-going public doesn’t need subtitles because, one way or another, the diction is clearly understandable (Italian opera-goers express themselves in the same way as the actors in their operas), this is not the case here for work in Catalan or Castilian. This is not a new problem: at the end of the 19th Century opera written by Spanish composers was translated into Italian because this was the only way to make it acceptable to the public. Much has been written about this matter, although the majority concludes that it has to do with questions of style, of the existing model of vocalization. I agree with this –up to a point. While it is partly true, it leaves to one side something that to me seems crucial, and that is the fact that each language possesses its own song, as in a way speaking is in itself a mode of singing, and composers from the Catalan and Castilian cultural milieus don’t seem to have found the key to communicating as effectively as their Italian counterparts. Singing projecting the voice is no more than an extension –let us say an exaggeration- of the use of a language, with its characteristics, to speak. So while in Italian the expressive and exaggerated rising and falling of the different pitches of voice are inherent in the pronunciation, it is not so to the same degree in German. So the use of that language in German opera did not prevail until the end of the 19th Century, for similar reasons to those put forward in the case of Catalan and Castilian.

But how did the German language finally come to be accepted to the point that opera using this language grew and developed? As easy and unsuitable explanation –because it is not true, although too widely believed-  is that there have been composers of such genius in this genre using German  and that consequently this model has prevailed. The reality is, however, quite different as such a process only comes about when the modulation of the vocal use adapts itself to the diction of the German language and it is here that German opera-goers feel comfortable and connect with what is happening on the stage. This produces an expressive proximity which allows them to get to the centre of the story being performed, to the point where they can share in it. This last stage, the identification of the listener with the work is, from my point of view, a fundamental one, as without this deep relationship between music/text and listener, failure is assured. It is by chance that each language has ended up developing for the most part a type of opera which is suitable to its vocalization: Italian music has tended towards the comic while German has to epic and dramatic stories. Today, both have gone beyond this situation, while starting out from the initial character and articulation, time has molded them in such a way that both forms have become acceptable in either of the languages.  Still, one can say that in general they retain the models related to their expressive profile.

So we can conclude provisionally that each language possesses its own unprecedented diction, which in itself is a great resource as, after all, it stems from a process of refinement that has gone on over centuries of experience and small advances. In this way, when we listen to a Richard Wagner opera, without even understand a word, we can’t help but take pleasure in the expressiveness of the timbre of the language, without realizing that this is fundamentally because the design of the writing for the voice corresponds closely to this timbre.  It is natural, beautiful and not vocally transferable: the music would not work equally in Italian or Catalan, as the diction would not correspond to the expressiveness that comes with the pronunciation of the original language, and it would therefore be strange to the ear and less easily understood.

Having said this it is clear that the issues of vocal diction together with the nature of the sound of a language, are ones which must be faced when the vocal elements must be resolved in an opera in any language. As I see it, still today the problem of opera in Catalan or Castilian is when the voice is projected it becomes practically incomprehensible. It is not just chance that in the genre of Zarzuela there is a combination of the two vocal models of song and spoken text, as this was the only form clearly acceptable to the public of the period. From Spanish opera of the 19th Century to contemporary work the problem does not seem to have been solved and all attempts at anew opera in Catalan or in Castilian have tried to follow a type of vocalization similar to or flirting with the Italian and German models. The result could not but be a lack of naturalness in the vocalization and a diction far from the natural pronunciation of the text, both of which one way or another make it difficult for the listener to identify with the drama and its outcome.

In Lord Byron, as was also the case in the previous opera, La Cuzzoni, there is an attempt to use the voice in a manner fully adapted to the spoken language. In this attempt the text of Marc Rosich has helped enormously as his prose is very expressive rich in images, something not very frequent in present day opera. This objective has been approached from different parameters: firstly, through analyzing the modes of pronunciation of the text, in this case one in Catalan; secondly, relating the vocal elements to the phonetics of the language  –especially the different positions of the voice in the oral cavity-  and so by breaking up the language, to achieve a naturalness in its use. To do this it has been necessary to avoid prejudices, as the use of a the natural diction of Catalan without exaggeration “a la italiana” goes again most of the models of opera written in Catalan or Castilian up to the present time.

A painstaking study of the language seemed absolutely necessary to tackle a new type of diction, one trying to approach the spoken language. To start with, Catalan –and in many aspects Castilian as well– has two principal characteristics:  an interval related to the triton, together with a movement of the words in joint degrees, and the constant use of rhythmic acceleration and slowing of the text. The combination of these elements makes possible the dramatic tension or distension of a phrase. At the same time this is not a constant element in Catalan: there is always a variable rhythm. These are not the only features, although they are, without doubt, the most characteristic ones, so that the correct use of them can lead to the desired expressiveness.

Having gone this far, I feel that I should warn the reader that what I have outlined above should not be interpreted as claiming that this is the only possible model, as in contemporary opera there is an amalgam of an great number of models, some with vocal procedures which, rather than make the text intelligible, are trying to achieve the very opposite effect. But what I am concerned with in this discussion is the type that leads to a comprehensible vocal diction, both in content and expression, which is, in any case, what this composer is trying to achieve.

The model that originates from the phonetics is useful here to coordinate the distinct levels of the text –its fine tuning– and its purposes, with its pronunciation:  from the internal to the external vowels, understood as in the oral cavity. Consonants are no more than combinations of the position of the tongue and the degree of opening of the oral cavity, which lead to the creation of the typical interferences of the language. That’s to say, while vowels are common elements in all languages, each language has a range of its own consonants, and one way or another, these modulate the vowels. Each language has developed this way over the centuries. This practice gives each word the possibility of becoming an instrument, as  sound is modulated in a manner similar to  that of a wind instrument: in these the sound is produced with air that comes from the respiratory tract and  goes to the wind pipe while the reeds and keys modulate the projected sound in  pitch and tone. Something similar occurs with any voice: we all have a different oral cavity, and it is with this that we pronounce the language. In Lord Byron it is the chorus that follows this model-. They become a VOX INSTRUMENTALIS that leads and unites the orchestra and the voices of the soloists. The chorus in this way is both instrument and also bearer of the text of the soloists, in an amalgam of resources that surrounds the stage and converts its tone into a single sound process in which sometimes it can even be difficult to distinguish this from the orchestra and vice versa. The pronunciation comes from the decomposition of the main text of the opera, thus constructing an impossible meta-language, where the vain attempt to understand its meaning emphasizes and amplifies the dialogues of the soloists and gives greater impact to the drama. This produces an impressive choral tone, with a richness of timbre, where the chorus becomes an essential instrument which, together with the orchestra, supports the vocal and dramatic play of the soloists’ voices.

There can be no doubt that, like all language in permanent evolution and change, its timbre and the musical use that comes from this offer us infinite resolutions, and while not all of them are effective and comprehensible to the same degree, yet they do allow us to develop musical procedures that evolve in parallel to it. The work and the objective of the composer is to find the paths that allow listeners to journey through the sound images of their own means of expression. We have signaled some paths, those which we consider ideal for our intentions in opera, although, needless to say, they are not the only ones that could be followed.


Agustí Charles


Translation: Louise Higham