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Translating Opera: New Languages, Audiences and Contexts

Julia Prest


trans?l?t, tranz?l?t
verb [I or T]

  1. express the sense of words or text in another language.

    "The French original has been translated into English"

  2. ?move from one place or condition to another.

    "The opera has been translated from its original performance context to a different one"

The impact of opera

The driving force of opera is its impact upon an audience, something that is created by its production team and transmitted via its performers. What precise form that impact takes is a matter of theoretical debate and in practice varies from one production as well as from one individual and even one performance to another. When an opera is premiered, its initial impact is typically an object of considerable scrutiny, and early reviews often occupy pride of place in a work's mythology. When a new production of the same work appears years, decades or even centuries later, often in a significantly different cultural context, the new production team and performers seek sometimes to reproduce, sometimes to build on and sometimes to escape that mythology. In order to attempt to produce whatever impact is desired on a particular audience, the team will seek to translate the opera in a number of ways, culturally and sometimes linguistically. Indeed, the inaccessibility of a foreign language is one of the key reasons for opera's reputation today as an elitist genre, and translating its libretto is one of the key ways in which this obstacle can be overcome. Different forms of translation are thus key to producing opera that is meaningful and approachable to modern audiences.

The project

This project is about the impact of opera in performance and how that changes when an opera moves beyond its original performance context, i.e. when it is translated. The primary focus of the project is on the different trajectories taken by the operas of the pioneering composer, Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-87). Gluck is a particularly rich case study owing to his extraordinary international profile: born in Germany and raised in Bohemia, he studied in Milan and London, and wrote the majority of his works for audiences in Vienna and Paris. A native speaker of Czech, Gluck was conversant (though not fully fluent) in German, French and Italian and wrote his operas to libretti in Italian and French. At the same time that Gluck championed the controversial cause of French-language opera, he claimed, paradoxically to be seeking a musical language ‘propre à toutes les Nations’ (fit for all nations) and to ‘faire disparoître la ridicule distinction des musiques nationales’ (banish the ridiculous distinctions between national musical styles). His works did indeed become known across Europe, where they were often translated into the local language. Gluck himself participated in the cultural and linguistic translation of his most famous opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, into Orphée et Eurydice as well as an Italian to French translation of Alceste and a French to German translation of Iphigénie en Tauride. The first extra-European performance of a Gluck opera is now understood to have been that of Orphée et Eurydice in Port-au-Prince, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) on 19 March 1782.

Gluck translated

The underpinning research uncovers hitherto overlooked performances, some of them during Gluck’s lifetime, of his French-language works in the French colonial Caribbean, where they were “translated” from one context to another and received by new audiences.

Translating Gluck

This in turn is complemented by a project run in 2014-15 to translate the French libretto of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride into a gently modernized English idiom aimed at promoting and enhancing the impact of a production of the work by Byre Opera in St Andrews in June 2015. The project charts the translation process, the rehearsal period and the final performances of the work in translation and its impact on the director, performers and audience members. It also details the subsequent use of the same translation by Red Earth Opera in Devon for performance in 2016, as well as various dissemination activities with opera groups and schools.

Some outcomes

Gluck’s masterpieces are both brought to new audiences today and seen to have reached overlooked audiences in the past. Our understanding of Gluck’s impact in the past is broadened, while his impact in the present is enabled and enriched via the careful translation of language, culture and context.

Dr Julia Prest is Reader in Early-Modern French at the University of St Andrews