Only Fools Russian!
One of the most common questions I am asked by audience members or by those simply curious about the life of an opera singer is, “How many languages do you speak?” The assumption is that a singer understands every word they sing, and that to perform music in a foreign language one must be able to speak or understand the text. I hope I’m not spoiling any illusions when I say that is not the case! While I have a very good handle on French, German, Italian and Spanish, I do not speak Russian, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, Czech, Portuguese or Hindi, yet I have performed in all these languages. What’s the trick, and how can a singer hope to produce a convincing rendition of words or poetry they don’t even understand?
I am preparing a programme of songs by Borodin, Tanayev and Rachmaninov for a performance in the London Chamber Music Society series at King’s Place at the end of this month with the acclaimed Zhislin, Podobedov & Blaumane Piano Trio, which is a wonderful challenge, but also an awful lot of extra homework for me! The tricky part is not so much the language itself, but the time it takes my brain to process it.
If you have no experience in deciphering what might seem like a strange code, the alphabet of Cyril can be surreal (that’s a feeble attempt at a silly rhyme…!). But with the help of a beginner’s Russian book, or even a basic guide off the internet, anyone can learn the letters. Helpfully, there are even some that are the same as our own, (a, k, M, o, and T make the same sounds as in English) so it’s not as hard as it might seem as first! Admittedly there’s a bit more to it than just cracking the code and joining up random sounds, but it’s a good place to start.
With the help of my dictionary I am able to read, pronounce, and gain a basic understanding of key words in a new song or poem. Helpful translation sites and recordings on You Tube or iTunes help me to verify my diction and the deeper meaning of the poetry I might not have gleaned from my limited comprehension skills. And although it might take me three or four times as long to penetrate a song or aria and bring it up to performance standard, the satisfaction and genuine relationship I forge with a piece through this method is well worth it. In fact, if I am to give a credible interpretation, for me, this seemingly laborious technique it is the only way to go.
This past weekend I met with the group for our first rehearsal, and the two native Russians in the room accepted my rendition of these poems without the blink of an eye… I will take that as a positive sign that I’ve done my homework well!
Hear us live on BBC Radio 3 ‘In Tune’ this week, Thursday, January 26th around 6pm for a foretaste of the upcoming concert, and join us on Sunday, January 29th, 2017 at 18:30 for an inspiring programme of songs by Borodin, Massenet, Taneyev and Rachmaninov, as well as piano trios by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov at Kings Place in London. You’d be a fool not to Russian!