Many people think of opera as a “posh” or “elitist” art-form, sung mainly in Italian, and taking place in rather forbidding buildings where the tickets cost a week’s wages. Much discussion in the opera world has revolved around these perceptions and the ways in which they might be overcome in order to bring bigger audiences. One way of doing this is to try writing operas in regional accents.
The fact is opera is expensive. That’s not to say that tickets are all too pricey (the cheapest seats are around £15 at the Royal Opera House) – but, in 2012, 22% of Arts Council England funding went to opera and ballet when between them they attracted an audience share of just 8%.
The Arsonists is a new opera sung for the first time in a Yorkshire accent. Most new operas written in the UK and US are in English but opera singers are trained to sing in a style closest to “Received Pronunciation” – the linguistic marker of the establishment in England.
When I started to discuss the opera with librettist and poet Ian McMillan, it was obvious that the characters we’d be portraying wouldn’t speak RP – so could we get singers to go against their training and abandon RP in favour of a Barnsley twang?
We worked with singers based in the north of England and with socio-linguist Philip Tipton to try it out. In theory, some Yorkshire vowels ought to work well – the long “ä” in Tränen (German for tears) is pretty much the same as the long “ai” in the word “train” as pronounced in Yorkshire and Lancashire.
The problem with ‘love’
But some usefully emotive words like “love” presented a problem for both singers and composer. Liebe (German), amore (Italian), amour (French) all contain long, “pure” vowels – and that’s probably why English translations have often allowed a longish vowel on the word “love” in traditional opera in translation (even though in RP it’s short). But “love” in Yorkshire has to be short – linguistically, that is – or it loses its regional identity. Sadly, the long “loves” had to go.
On occasion, we had to come up with solutions that went directly against singers’ training in other ways. To be heard above an orchestra, opera singers can only project on vowels, so classical singing makes consonants as short as possible. Even ones you can sing through, such as “m” and “l”. This isn’t true for amplified singing styles – think about the length of the “r” when Bing Crosby sings “dreaming” in White Christmas, for example.
In The Arsonists we had the phrase: “you can send me for a long stand” and the music was relatively slow. Traditionally, RP singing could give this a long vowel but it has to be short in the north. However the “n” can be lengthened and sung through. It comes over as the northern “stand” and you hear the whole word as sung at a slow pace, even though the “n” is not really audible above the orchestra.
The northern operatic voice is a work in progress and once the music is bedded in we will continue to develop the techniques necessary to portray northern linguistic identities as accurately as possible. It’s much easier for singers who have been around non-RP accents, or perhaps speak “northern” themselves, to adapt to the “new northern normal” – but in theory anyone could do it.
In this, it’s no different to the ability to adopt different accents in spoken theatre. Perhaps the fact that opera singers haven’t had to do it before speaks volumes about the absence of northern characters in opera, while in TV and theatre a strong northern voice has been present for decades.