Opera Lyrics Said To Contain Actual Words
New York, September 8 (AP) – The classical music scene remains in a tumult several days after a prominent operatic tenor claimed that the lyrics to most, if not all, operas are composed of words, and not gibberish. The assertion threw into disarray legions of music scholars, producers, and performers, and threatens to reshape understanding of a centuries-old musical genre.
Jose Carreras, a Spanish tenor who has enjoyed operatic fame since his 1971 debut, wrote last week that in looking back over the hundreds of librettos he has seen over the years, it finally struck him that they were written in what might be described as a language, if in a crude, immature form.
Carreras further claimed that the operas could be grouped into several different languages, of which at least two are still spoken in various parts of the world – an assertion that immediately provoked demands that the singer produce evidence of such a claim.
It has long been axiomatic in opera that the librettist – who writes the text to which the composer fits dramatic music – is charged with producing a script that conveys the raw emotional and dramatic power of the music without actually resorting to the use of coherent words or phrases. Occasional exceptions are made for the insertion of names of principal characters in each work, but beyond those instances, gibberish has long been considered the preferred idiom.
If Carreras’s claim finds support among scholars, the entire body of operatic librettos will require reexamination to determine whether generations of musicians and audiences have been operating under a mistaken assumption. Each work will have to undergo reevaluation to determine what language, if any, the librettist used.
More importantly, says musicologist Tilda Fatt-Ladysingz, scholars and laymen alike will need to discover by what means they had been fooled for so long, and, if the phenomenon proves widespread in the classical repertoire, whether the composers themselves were privy to the secret. “Musical historians will likely take a new look at the collected letters of many famous opera composers, combing the letters for hints that, for example, the German-speaking, Austrian Mozart knew that the Frenchman Beaumarchais, the librettist for The Marriage of Figaro, had actually used an as-yet-unknown argot,” she explained.
Until now, continued Fatt-Ladysingz, references to “Italian” or “Russian” had been taken merely as made-up words synonymous with “gibberish.” But if it turns out they refer to actual languages, the entire Western view of the cultural landscape will shift.
Except, said the musicologist, in the U.S., where the existence and significance of other cultures has never meant very much.