You’re about two-thirds of the way through the Sunday crossword, feeling pretty good about yourself, when you realize that an 11-letter-word, already anchoring seven other words, which in turn attach to other “solutions,” is a mistake. Time to get out the big eraser.
The job of creating a new singing translation, as I’ve done for our 2013 production of Verdi’s first comic opera, can feel like working a giant crossword puzzle. The words must tell the story, fit the syllabification of the Italian, be singer-friendly (open vowels on cadenzas and high notes, please) and rhyme….often across multiple characters’ lines. It’s the ensembles, in particular, that have caused me to rub out many a clever couplet and begin again, looking for something not just stand-alone-smart, but able to join in the large-scale verbal dance.
Sometimes perfect verses occur to me immediately when I listen to an aria or ensemble. Other times, I spend hours assembling a pantry of potential ingredients before I start cooking. Here’s a page from my notebook: risk, peril, menace, finish, unstable, unable, hazard, looming, doom, consume, perfume, resume, cataclysm, catechism, baptism, altercation, situation, castration, cessation, cremation, litigation, mutation, eruption, conniption, prescription, adversity, perversity, lunatic, maniac, crackpot, jackpot, psychopath, bananas, fanatic, demented, vented, rented, repented, resented, circumvented, discontented, weasel, diesel, deceiver, measles, craven, traitor, rascal, liar, fire, wire, sire, mire, deploy, destroy, break your neck, have your hide, scalp, flay, dismay, rout, shout, stab, gut.
Why not just sing it in Italian? It’s a valid question, I suppose. But we have to remember that our fetishization of the original language is a relatively modern development. Yes, Verdi wrote with the sounds of the Italian language in mind, but during his lifetime he saw most of his works change languages every time they crossed a border. For Verdi, Rossini, and their colleagues, the idea of performing in a language not spoken by the audience would have been unthinkable.
Every new production is a new creation, and hundreds of questions must be asked and answered. Will the set be period or modern, realistic or stylized? Will there be a ballet? Will we perform all four hours, or make some judicious cuts? What about the clothes? With the proliferation of supertitles, we sometimes forget that language is another choice that can and should be actively made. In this case, the creative team has agreed that a comedy–particularly an unfamiliar one like KING FOR A DAY–will gain more than it loses in translation. We hope you agree.