Czech mate: language coach Q&A
Lucie Špičková tells us how she helps singers master Czech, and why singing an opera in its original language helps convey the composer’s vision and maintain its visceral quality.
LS: Performing an opera in a foreign language can be a daunting task at the best of times, let alone when the language in question is as unfamiliar as Czech. Generally singers are very much at home in Italian, German and French repertoire, but Czech and Russian operas, though widely performed, are still less frequent guests on the world stage. My job as language coach is to take away the element of fear often associated with performing in Czech and facilitating the process of turning gobbledygook into something that makes sense to the singers and resonates with them, emotionally and intellectually.
I prefer working with singers individually, rather than with a group, because there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’. Each singer has a different way of processing information and relating it back to their mother tongue or way of learning. Some performers prefer using phonetics and work best with an analytical approach to language, others are more aural, and prefer thinking in terms of shapes, lines and the way a particular word feels. The first step is to have an exact idea of what the words mean, and have a good working translation. Then comes the slow speaking of the text, and breaking down any tricky words that are causing the singer difficulties. The Czech language can look very intimidating at first sight due to clusters of consonants, sometimes as many as five in a row. The key is to know where to put in a schwa vowel, which is a very short neutral vowel sound, allowing the singers to sing on a vowel, even if there doesn’t appear to be one in the word. Gradually you add the vocal line, learning which words need to be modified in different parts of the voice and also taking into account what the orchestra is doing at any given point. Through this painstaking process the singer internalises the text, not just memorising the words and mechanically replicating them, but actually feeling and breathing the emotion behind them. Being a part of this process is a very humbling experience; I am in awe of artists tackling this difficult language with patience, persistence and humour and performing in a language so different to their own, with emotional honesty and linguistic integrity.
LS: Sung Czech is different to spoken Czech, which is true of pretty much every language under the sun. We all know what it’s like to sit through a Britten opera and come away not having understood every word, even though the singers are native speakers. The same goes for Czech. When spoken, Czech tends to be very monotone, without much inflection: sung Czech is much more beautiful, to my mind I always advise singers to think of Italian when singing in Czech, as that is where most singers feel very much at home, and that particular soundworld resonates best with them. Czech vowels are very Italianate, brighter and more open than you would expect and, though we have many diacritical markings (š, č, ř, ž, ň, ď, ť, ý, á, í, é, ů, ó, ú, ě), once singers understand what they mean, they generally find Czech enjoyable to sing.
Lucie Špičková (left) with Lucy Crowe in The Cunning Little Vixen, 2012 | Photo: Bill Cooper
LS: Of course there are many arguments in favour of performing operas in English, as they are easier to understand. However, performing operas in their original language helps convey the vision of the composer and this is especially true of Janáček. He composed his works with a very definite soundworld in mind, in which language works in perfect harmony with the music. It is important to understand just how conversational his operas are, the language he employs is colloquial and familiar, full of local colour and speech-derived melodic lines. He composed by listening to speech patterns and setting them to music as precisely as he could. His personal notebooks are full of annotated phrases on hand-drawn staves, capturing fragments of conversations he happened to overhear or particular sentences he liked. Language to him wasn’t just something to fit around the music, the words themselves are the very foundations from which his music grew, the roots of his operas. Performing his works in any language other than the one he deliberately chose to compose in results in a loss of that particular visceral quality his music holds. I would liken it to making a traditional Italian lasagne, but replacing the beef with lamb, parmesan with cheddar and smothering the whole thing in ketchup. Perfectly palatable but not quite the same!
LS: Russia and Russian culture were a lifelong inspiration to Janáček, he read Russian authors in their original language and even founded a Russian Circle in Brno, following his first visit to Russia in 1896. Káťa Kabanová, composed in 1921, is based on Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Storm, inspired by his dual loves of Russian literature and Kamila Stösslová, a much younger married woman, who was a profound influence on Janáček in his last decade. Káťa Kabanová may be a relatively short opera, but a searingly intense and incredibly moving one. Despite the nearly illegible manuscript score that Janáček presented to his publishers and the thousands of mistakes that appeared in the first printed orchestral score, there is a greatness to Káťa and a universality that speaks volumes. The tonality to me is unmistakably Czech, and just hearing the overture makes me feel homesick. It is a soundworld unlike any other, which the discerning Glyndebourne audience will fall in love with, I am sure.
LS: Having had the privilege of working on The Cunning Little Vixen with Vladimir Jurowski and Melly Still in 2012 as a singer, it is a very interesting experience to be on the other side of the table, working with the music and production staff. I would hope my experience as a performer makes me appreciate more acutely the challenges that singers face when learning a demanding role in a complex language. I know how frazzled you can feel at the end of a long rehearsal, when you see the vocal coach advancing, clutching a long list of notes that you are expected to internalise by the next rehearsal! I believe that, as a vocal coach, it is important to know when to let things go and allow the singer the freedom to just sing. For me, singing and coaching are two sides of the same coin, with different skills attached to each, but ones that complement each other very effectively. And being a part of the Glyndebourne family is always a tremendous pleasure.
A BRAND NEW PRODUCTION OF KÁŤA KABANOVÁ OPENS THE 2021 GLYNDEBOURNE FESTIVAL IN MAY
This article was first published in our Members’ Newsletter, one of the benefits of Glyndebourne Membership.
Main image: Lucie Špičková as a Noble Orphan in Der Rosenkavalier, 2014. Photo by Bill Cooper