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OPERA IN ENGLISH
ITS RELATION TO THE AMERICAN COMPOSER AND SINGER
BY REGINALD DE KOVEN
OPERA in English is no new thing, in
America. More than a generation ago, when grand opera was a heavily subsidized luxury for the wealthy and the cultivated few, and the Metropolitan Opera-House in New York was still a tentative and costly experiment, the socalled standard operas were being sung in English throughout the country by traveling organizations like those of Emma Abbott, the Boston Ideals, the Bostonians, and others. The operas were generally adequately interpreted by competent artists, with a degree of popular interest and consequent financial success which made handsome fortunes for these enterprises. The artistic success achieved by the Thurber Opera Company, the first to give opera in English on anything like a Metropolitan scale, showed that the lack of permanence of this praiseworthy experiment was due to extravagant conditions of organization and financial mismanagement rather than because the public at large did not care for opera in English. In later years both Mr. Henry W. Savage and the Messrs. Aborn have given grand opera in English in more or less satisfactory artistic fashion and with generally uniform financial success.
In view of these facts, it is hard to see why we are not forced to admit that opera in English in this country has not been for some time an accepted fact rather than a debatable possibility. It is only within the last few years, when interest in opera as a form of entertainment has spread and increased to a notable extent, that individual writers and critics, and societies and organizations like the National Federation of Musical Clubs and the National Society for the Propagation of Opera in English, have voiced a rapidly growing popular sentiment by asking why opera in English should not be admitted
to our great opera-houses. The foreign influences which have controlled, and still control, these enterprises, were at first definitely inimical to including opera in English in their scheme of opera-giving; but popular opinion is mighty and will prevail, so that now opera in the vernacular, both original and in translations of standard works, has gained a permanent place in the regular repertoires and plans of our three leading operatic institutions.
This being so, it might seem superfluous to argue the question further, or to insist that we are the only musical people of the world who permit their opera to be sung to them otherwise than in the vernacular or to demand that all our opera should be so sung. But the entering wedge for opera in English has only just been driven in, and there are still so many intelligent opera-lovers who decry opera sung in English that it seems important to indicate briefly the points at issue, and, if possible, to clinch the argument in favor of a proposition which has an important bearing on the development of music in America.
From a purely esthetic point of view it must, I think, be admitted that the contention that opera should be sung in the language which inspired the music is a valid one. From the point of view of practical possibilities, however, this contention can hardly be sustained, as otherwise the Russian opera "Pique Dame" would not be sung to us in Italian; we should not be obliged to hear the original Bohemian text of the "Bartered Bride" in German, or have the original German idiom of "Kuhreigen" distorted into French. If the text of operas must of necessity be translated, why, in an English-speaking country, not translate them into English? Inconsistencies of this kind must surely invalidate the esthetic plea for the original.
text often urged against opera in the vernacular.
The principal arguments against opera in English, as I have heard them raised,
First, the unaccustomed sound of the language, making the sentiments expressed in song seem oftentimes strange, couth, and even ludicrous.
Second, the inferior and inartistic qualities of the translations of the texts in use. Third, the limitations and difficulties of the English language as a language of song.
Fourth, the lack of artists competent to sing in that language.
The first two of these objections may readily be answered as one; for were we to have the proper artistic translations of foreign texts, now readily obtainable, both would disappear. It is certain, answering It is certain, answering the third objection, that any one who has heard Signor Bonci sing in English can no longer maintain that English as a singing language is either difficult or impractical; and it is equally certain, to reply to the last objection, that if the public demands that all operas should be sung in the vernacular, singers to sing them could and would be found. As a practical musician who has sung in four languages, I confidently maintain that to an Englishspeaking person English, when properly studied, is, next to Italian, the pure language of song, the easiest language in which to sing. In this day and age of dramatic opera, when intelligible dramatic. diction has become a sine qua non for any kind of intelligent enjoyment, the hackneyed and lackadaisical argument that opera is always unintelligible, and that therefore the language in which it is sung matters not at all, is too puerile to discuss.
The inwardness of the whole question of opera in English for American audiences is, I think, summed up in a conversation I had two years ago with Signor Gatti-Casazza, the director of the Metropolitan Opera-House, in reference to his including opera in English in his regular operatic plans. Knowing that much of his reputation as an impresario was due to his mounting of the Wagner operas at La Scala, I said to him:
"May I ask, Mr. Gatti, when you gave your performances of Wagner in Milan, in what language these operas were sung?"
"In Italian, of course," he replied. "May I ask further," I continued, "had you given these operas with the original German text, what would have been the result?"
"Why, nobody would have come to see them," he answered, thus proving conclusively that in Italy at least, it is impossible either from an artistic or a financial point of view to give opera in any language but the vernacular.
If the Italians insist imperatively that their opera should be sung to them exclusively in their native tongue, thereby making of opera an intelligible and therefore more popular and generally interesting entertainment, making of it, in fact, a national institution for the masses, and not alone for the classes, why should not we opera-lovers of America free ourselves from the limitations imposed by foreign influences that impede our national operatic development, and demand the same thing?
We must, I believe, admit that opera in English is practical from the point of view of language, desirable from its resultant intelligibility and consequent wider appeal to popular interest and sympathy, and therefore finally inevitable to us as an English-speaking musical people. For if to-day opera, as it undoubtedly is, has become the dominant, the most popularly appealing, and most opportune musical form for the expression of creative musical thought, it is also inevitable that the future activities of the American composer must be largely operatic to assure to himself artistic progress and development, and to secure for his art the needed wider national recognition, significance, and importance. And to what language shall a composer write opera if not to his own?
I have so far employed the term “opera in English" in referring to that language when used in connection with music in opera. But there is another term-“English opera"-which has a far more pertinent and important significance in its bearing on the subject under discussion. Opera in English and English opera, though correlated terms, are nevertheless not sufficiently coincident to be interchangeable. Opera in English, as I take it, means the performance in the English language of the operas of the standard repertoire; while English opera would mean the production
of operas originally written to an English text by composers of whatever nationality. Bearing in mind the undoubted influence of a language on the conception and expression of a composer's thought, the consideration of English opera opens an entirely new range of artistic suggestion. However opinions may vary as to the desirability or suitability of opera in English, there can be at the present time only one opinion as to the positive necessity of English opera as the readiest means to our hand not only to stimulate and develop American musical art and the American composer, but also to encourage and increase that much needed national confidence in native musical possibilities which begets a national art and the love and respect of a nation for it.
I believe confidently that, were opera to be generally sung in English, the appreciation for this form of art and of music in general by the public at large would be notably increased. Such increased appreciation, I further believe, in its turn and by degrees would foster and develop that national interest in and feeling for music as an art which we still lack, and which we instantly need in order that this art with us may assume in the minds of the people the position and national significance which it enjoys abroad, and to which it owes its influence and importance.
My friend the late Mr. MacDowell was always very impatient at being put for ward as an American composer, and was wont to declare with some heat that he would rather not be heard at all than to be known simply as a composer whose works were exploited for purely national reasons. While one may understand his reluctance to be judged as a composer seeking for international reputation by merely local standards and because of local indulgence, I think that his attitude in this matter was wrongly taken. The greatest music known to the world to-day is so strongly marked and influenced by distinctively national characteristics and feeling that it may almost be set down as axiomatic that music, to be great, must in a sense be national; for the history of music shows that the best music, that music which has shown the greatest permanence, has been written by the composers of those countries where the greatest amount of national feeling prevails.
Paris is now the great art-producing center that it is because the French in all matters pertaining to art are intensely national. To a Frenchman, French art is better and more perfect than any other art, and it cannot be doubted that this national confidence in a national ability has everything to do with the productive vitality which is characteristic of French art in all its branches to-day. It is also beyond question that the lack of this confidence is the principal cause why we in America are to a great extent a nation of adapters and imitators rather than originators and creators, artistically speaking; why, from a dramatic point of view, our theatrical managers reproduce rather than produce; why at any of our principal opera-houses an unknown German, Frenchman, or Italian has a better chance of having an unknown and untried work produced than an American; why, strictly speaking, we have had hitherto no national drama, no national music, and far too little national pride or interest in national endeavor in any branch of art.
It is perhaps not surprising that our musical productiveness has not been on a par with, or attained equal eminence or distinction with, our achievements in other branches of art and literature.
The American composer, largely owing to the difficulty of obtaining anything like an adequate and comprehensive musical training in this country, has been by education, association, environment, sympathy, and acquired tradition in thought and feeling, in method and practice, essentially foreign rather than distinctively American.
We do not possess in this country the folk-music which makes the music of countries like Spain and Italy, Russia and Sweden, Germany and the Czech countries, so individual and so characteristic, wherewith a composer may begin to build up a national school of music; for it is idle to allege, despite the efforts of Dr. Dvořák and others, that the folk-music- Indian, negro, and Creole-which undoubtedly exists in this country is really valuable as a basic foundation for a school of music that could be considered in any sense national.
If folk-music be an inevitable necessity for the foundation of a national school of music, we are only now beginning to be that nation which could find a vent for its
emotions or feelings in such a form. I am not one of those who decry or cavil at the enormous and heterogeneous crop of so-called popular music, be it rag-time or what you will, which is characteristic of music in America to-day. In bringing music as a fact and a pleasurable feature of daily life to people who had previously never considered or known it at all, this music has achieved a definite result and worked an enduring benefit. Because of it, and for the first time in our musical history, musical culture has been begun, as it should begin, from the bottom up; for publishers of popular music are responsible for the statement that the popular song has vastly improved in character and artistic quality in the last decade, and that a song of merit sufficient to obtain a vogue and wide-spread popularity five years ago is now no longer good enough to secure general popular sympathy and recognition. So it is possible that this popular music of the day, ephemeral though it is, may contain the germ of the folk-song, that unconscious soul utterance of the people which some day will make American music as distinctively national as that of other nations.
What the American composer now most needs, in order to secure that national confidence and pride in his abilities which will in time render a distinctively national school of music a possibility, is to be heard. Opera in any one of its numerous forms or varieties, grand, lyric, light, or comic, would seem to afford him the needed opportunity; and if he writes opera at all, he must write English opera. Hence the vast importance of English opera and opera in English.
country of the size and wealth of America, when opera, through being sung in the vernacular, shall attain that measure of popular interest and appreciation which will render it an essential part of the intellectual and artistic life and enjoyment of the people here, as it is in Italy to-day. Were such a condition of opera-giving ever to obtain in this country, as is by no means unlikely, we should have permanent opera companies not only in our three principal cities, but in a score, a consequent increased demand for English operas by native composers, and an added incentive for our composers to work in a field whose present harvest is principally glory; while the thousands of young American singers now barn-storming in opera in foreign countries, singing minor rôles at starvation salaries, would have the needed and much to be desired opportunity of being heard and appreciated in the country where they belong, and from which this present lack of opportunity has to a great extent exiled them. There are today hundreds of thousands of young men and women studying singing in this country, waiting, hoping, and too often in vain, for the hardly won chance to show their talents to the public, and thus justify the labor, time, and money spent in cultivating them. Now that it is possible as never before to obtain in this country a competent and thorough vocal training, there is all the more need for those who elect to gain an education here to be heard here without being first compelled to go abroad to obtain the reputation which now seems necessary to secure them even a hearing at home. The fact that the diction of many of our native-born singers is faulty and imperfect in English has been due largely to the necessity of singing almost exclusively in foreign languages consequent upon their having been trained abroad.
It is certain, and I cannot make the contention too emphatic, that with proper study any intelligent person can sing the English language intelligibly. The fact has been proved over and over again, and should therefore no longer be cited as a principal and prohibitive objection to the English language as a language of opera and song.
But any argument in support of English opera and opera in English would be only half stated, any discussion on the bearing of opera in the vernacular on music in America and the American composer would be incomplete and half-hearted, without reference to the importance of the influence of such opera upon the American operatic singer. If a country of the size of Italy can support, as it does to-day, more than sixty theaters and opera-houses where original opera is produced, think of the possibilities of operatic production in a
THE GOLDEN TEMPLE OF
BY E. F. BENSON
Author of "The Relentless City," "Account Rendered," etc.
FROM the day when King Solomon
ROM the day when King Solomon bud that flowered into the golden temple
drew its sustenance, the most gorgeous of all the tropical and Orient blossoms of gold and precious stones and marble, the most marvelous and most inexplicable.
We feel that it must have grown as silently as the temple of Solomon, burgeoning with dews and sunshine; and even as its growth was silent, mystical, and hidden, uncharted by measurement or drawn design, so must have been the conception of it. No brain reduced to line and scale so magical a dream; no skill of architect or stone-cutter decreed its myriad-petaled loveliness; and at the most the holy saints and hermits who sat by the lake saw it only dimly as in a sacred vision of the night, and maybe they spoke of it to one another, like sibyls, while they still slept. From the mutter of their smiling lips the architects and craftsmen learned what vision blazed before their lidded eyes, and worked in an inspiration that was not their own, but, conveyed to them through the speech of those sleeping saints, came authentically out of that eternal vault of sun-stricken sky where all day long the kites are wheeling and chiding in companies. Like dew and sunlight the temple descended from heaven; like the smoking incense and the sound of prayers it rose, as pearly as dawn and as holy as Aphrodite, from the waters.
Hallowed from everlasting and instinct with healing were the waters of the spring that gushed out in the midst of the wilderness around Amritsar, and when in the fifteenth century the Sikhs, revolting from the arid formalism of the Brahmans in a crusade of a more virile faith, and discarding all notion of caste as being an unspiritual and material dogma, settled here and built the town of Amritsar, they found this spring already enshrined with tales of healing and attested miracles. To them their military chieftain was also priest; priest and king was he, like Mel
ple of the Lord of Hosts at Jerusalem until its crowning domes and pinnacles were all complete, the building rose silently, without noise of hammer or chisel. Stone after stone, already graven and prepared, was laid in its appointed place, and all about, while the visible signs and abidingplace of the Lord's glory became daily more manifest, there reigned the stillness of sanctuary and consecration. No carver's tool was heard to fashion the knops and open flowers of cedar, or chisel to engrave the feathers of the wings of the cherubim, or mallet to hammer into place the lintel and door-posts of olive-wood, and the rows of hewed stones grew into their lines as silently as the row of cedar beams that enroofed them.
It must have been in some such awed silence as this that the temple at Amritsar grew upon the waters. Like a golden lotus flower it floats there on the graygreen surface of the windless and foursquare lake; it is impossible even to believe that it rests on subaqueous foundations: a gale would set it swaying and shifting in the stem of its marble causeway. One day there must have sprouted from the terrace that encompasses the sacred lake a golden bud, and the white stem of it, its marble causeway, grew slowly and wondrously till the day when it stretched to midway across the holy and healing waters. Then some morning when the sun burned in the zenith above it, petal by marvelous petal the bud unfolded, and the temple, as we see it now, shone out upon the deep noon.
But not alone, and not even chiefly, from soil and water was fed that mystical growth, for even as the pale palaces of Venice rose from its enchanted lagoons, and as the columns of Athene Parthenos were fed with the mother milk of the heroic soil, so it was from the sun and the blaze of unclouded Indian days that the