Thursday, June 10, 2004

Of Fledermice and Men

Operatic translations have mostly fallen by the wayside, except for a few holdouts like England's Peter Moores, who keeps paying for the making of complete operatic recordings in English (making Chandos, which releases them, one of the few companies still making complete opera recordings). There are two reasons for this: 1) The use of titles in opera houses has made translations less necessary; 2) Most translations suck.

The reasons most operatic translations suck are well-known: the sounds of the new language don't match the sounds the composer set and therefore sit badly with the music; it's hard to keep the literal meaning of the original words and still write singable new lyrics; the original texts are often so archaic that a literal translation would turn audiences off (Wagner, for example, deliberately wrote the Ring libretto in a pseudo-archaic style, which means that to translate it accurately you'd have to have everybody singing "thee" and "thou" a lot). There's also the point that translators of opera libretti tend not to be particularly distinguished songwriters; Andrew Porter, who wrote many solid, usable translations, was a music critic, not a lyricist.

One of the few major songwriters who did operatic translation was Howard Dietz, who wrote many hit songs with Arthur Schwartz ("Dancing in the Dark," "That's Entertainment," "I Love Louisa," to name a few). The Metropolitan Opera commissioned him to write the English lyrics for a production of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus in 1951, with Garson Kanin writing the new dialogue. The production was a huge success at the time, but Dietz's lyrics have always been controversial among purists, who tut-tut that they throw out the literal meaning of the original lyrics, affix new words to what are merely repetisions in the original, and are "often vulgar and sometimes corny" (to quote David Hamilton in High Fidelity). It's true that the lyrics depart significantly from the originals, and that they call attention to themselves in the style of Broadway or Gilbert and Sullivan, whereas the original lyrics by Haffner and Genee are more of the solid, stolid, functional kind you usually get in German operetta. And some of the new lyrics are just too self-conscious, even to the point of breaking the fourth wall:

You will find
If your mind
Is an ever-sharp stiletto,
It's the kind
Of libretto
Where we all are at a ball.

On the other hand, there's no substitute for the expertise of a longtime professional lyricist; Dietz understands that the first test of writing lyrics to music is whether the lyrics are singable, whether the sounds of the words sit well with the music, whether they are good lyrics. Most translations of Fledermaus are more faithful to the originals, but they're poor lyrics. Dietz's are not:

(opening of the Champagne song)
A Bacchanalian revel,
Tra la la la la la la la,
Devil take the devil,
Tra la la la la la la la la.
An evening that is grapeless
Is absolutely shapeless.
Whoever would be sober,
Return around October.
A fond farewell
Before a single "prosit" --
Whoever would oppose it
Go out the door and close it.
Farewell, farewell, farewell...

(The "Farewell, farewell, farewell" sits well on the notes that originally go with "stosst an"; if you wrote something closer to the original, like "drink up," it wouldn't sing well at all)

The untranslatable "duidu" chorus (based on a distinction among pronouns that has disappeared from the English language) becomes a straightforward chorus about love, but one that is well-written and, again, fits the music very well:

You and I, you and I
Are not afraid of love.
We will show this is no
Mere masquerade of love.
Every move goes to prove
What can be made of love.
You and I, you and I
Stole a star from the sky.
Finding a light
In the dark of the night
Is a sign
That you are mine, all mine.

Based on the success of this production, Dietz was hired to write a translation of La Boheme for the Met; it was performed in 1952, but it wasn't a success, and the Met quickly went back to Italian. I haven't been able to find the Dietz version so I can't tell you about it, but I have to think it would be better than some of the more sober and dull Boheme translations I've seen. The Fledermaus production was recorded for Columbia, but for some reason it's never been released on CD (even though it should be out of copyright by now).

No comments: