Talk about your process of preparing a new adaptation of a classic opera.
For me, the process starts with the music—I need to understand how a number works musically before I begin to think about the words. The story has to be clear and compelling, but if it doesn’t sound good, I haven’t done my job.
Many people have had the experience of spontaneously inventing new text for an existing tune (“Weird Al” Yankovic even made a career out of it), and sometimes I’m lucky enough to have the perfect English rendering of a line pop into my head. Other times, I might make a list of words that have something to do with the aria in question, spinning off lists of synonyms and rhyming words—the same way a chef assembles her mise en place before she really gets cooking. If the opera has a play or novel as its source, I’ll keep that close at hand for additional ideas.
You have prepared other translations of The Magic Flute before. What makes this new adaptation different?
Jun Kaneko’s set and costumes offer a bright, playful setting for the familiar story, and I’ve tried to support that sense of whimsy through some of my verbal choices.
How do you balance the concerns of telling the story clearly and choosing words and rhymes that can be musical?
The task of creating a singing translation has many intersecting—but not necessarily competing—concerns. It can be like working a giant crossword puzzle: Is the story clear? Does the verbal climax or “punch line” align with the musical high point? Does it sound like vernacular English? Will this vowel work in that tessitura? Does the tone of the language match the tone of the music? Would the character in question use that turn of phrase? Sometimes I may have to let go of a line that 100% satisfies in one area because it flunks in another.
The music helps me set priorities. For Papageno’s jaunty, vaudevillian numbers, humor and sparkle are important; I’m less concerned about helping him create a perfectly liquid legato line. Much of Sarastro’s language, like his music, should sound like it comes out of a hymnal. Pamina and Tamino’s language is more heightened and romantic (except when they temporarily join Papageno’s earthier sound-world). Their rhymes may not always be perfect, but I’d better give them vowels that let their high notes soar!
Many people don’t think of English as a particularly lyrical language for opera—what do you think?
Did you see Show Boat last season? OK. Next question.
Seriously, English can be a challenging language to sing in. It tends to be further back in the mouth than Italian, and it has a lot of dipthongs (blended vowels). I try to choose words that let the voice come through as lyrically as possible. English can be a grand tongue for singing. It just takes a little bit of care on the part of the lyricist (or translator). But this is the case in any language. German can also be quite a mouthful.
What is your favorite part of this new translation that people should listen for?
It’s hard for me to think of the words separate from Mozart’s music, and it’s even more difficult for me to pinpoint favorite musical moments in this glorious score. But I will say that I had a lot of fun writing for Papageno!