English diction coach Kathryn LaBouff has been helping singers communicate more clearly—and more beautifully—for more than three decades. She has prepared more than 300 opera productions, including a number of U.S. and world premieres, and she currently serves on the faculties of The Juilliard School and Manhattan School of Music. This summer, LaBouff worked with Glimmerglass casts and creative teams for both Sweeney Todd and The Crucible.
American opera singers are trained to communicate in many languages—Italian, French, German—but often, English gets short shrift. “When English is your first language, you can take it for granted,” says LaBouff. “But when you sing without amplification, as an opera singer does, you produce sound differently. In order to create the overtones, the soft palate is raised—it’s as though you were singing while yawning. I like to say that the difference between speaking and singing is like the difference between walking and dancing. You must modify the vowels when you go very high or very low. For instance, in The Crucible, the character Abigail Williams must sing the word ‘sniveling’ on a high B-flat. To get the space she needed, she started out with something that sounded like ‘snoveling.’ We had to work together to come up with a modification that ‘sings’ but that sounds more like the real word.”
Choosing dialects is an important part of creating the world of any show. “I always enjoy production work because it is so collaborative,” says LaBouff. “Dialect establishes class and locale. It is a production value, and it sets the scene as much as scenery does.” For Sweeney Todd, the production team specified a Cockney accent for Mrs. Lovett, Tobias and the Beggar Woman; an upper-class British accent for the Judge and the Beadle; and a middle-class accent for the title character. For The Crucible, the colonial setting was established with a “Middle Atlantic” accent, which LaBouff describes as “a hybrid of American and British pronunciation.”
Even when audience members are not aware of a dialect, chances are that the creative team has thought about a specific way of using language. “There is a neutralized version of English called Standard American,” says LaBouff. “It’s no one’s real pronunciation—it’s something that has to be learned. Broadcasters study Standard American so they can be understood by the majority of their constituents. In the same way, there is a Standard British that I use as a starting point when I am coaching a Britten opera. I tend to start with a neutral version of either American or British and then add in some regionalism.”
LaBouff’s preparation to coach an opera is multi-faceted. “As I go through a piece, I will speak with the director and find out his or her ideas—for instance, whether the piece will have a contemporary or historical setting. Then I go through and figure out what kind of language we might use for the different characters.”
One go-to resource is the online International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA), which has examples of how English is spoken all over the world by people of different ages. “I start there and then break down the components,” says LaBouff. “I look at the sounds phonetically and then consider how to adjust to make it sing. To me, the thing that is so interesting about this work is working with singers on all different levels. I try to analyze their priorities and give them techniques for working within their own process. I don’t want to re-do their technique, but to figure out how to work in synergy with their approach.”
In addition to detailed, syllable-by-syllable analysis of vowels and consonant, LaBouff works with singers to make sure thoughts—rather than just sounds—are delivered. “As listeners we anchor ourselves on the noun and verb,” she says. “If those are clear, the thought is transmitted. When singers work hard on every syllable, they actually just make a bunch of noise, and we don’t really register what they’re saying. Opera singers are trained to make the best sound they can on every single syllable. Learning to sing into the key words—the active verb and noun and some of their key modifiers—is a big transition.”
Young opera singers sometimes resist learning standard repertory in English. In LaBouff’s experience, that changes when they develop a set of techniques for maneuvering within the the language. “So often, singers may have never thought through the sounds of their own language. The time hasn’t been spent. But once singers have learned the techniques, I think they connect to the text on in a different way. My goal is always to have singers sing better. Not only to clearly to communicate the text, but also to create a better tone.”