Classical & Opera Singers: Language Training?

How does a classical or opera singer learn the lyrics for music that’s not in their native tongues? I’d imagine that most singers aren’t concurrently fluent in Italian, Latin, German, French, and whatever else that comes along. Are they coached in basic pronunciation? How do they know they’re not singing with some horrendous accent? Does the audience in, say, La Scala cringe when they hear an American sing an Italian opera?

Voice majors at my college are required to take a course called Diction for Singers that teaches them how to sing in foreign languages. They don’t learn what the words mean, just the phonetic pronounciation. It is suggested that voice majors study French, German, and Italian, but it is not required.

Choral singer checking in. This is correct. For those of us who haven’t majored in music, we’re generally coached via word-by-word pronunciation, typically by the director although sometimes the director will have one of the members who’s an expert at the whichever language we’re singing in do the coaching. Another alternative (or supplement, depending) is to hand out pronunciation guides.

Latin is the easiest to pronounce, since church Latin has such strict pronunciation rules. Plus you see it a lot. Italian is slightly more difficult because of the vowel blends between syllables and words. German is kind of tough because of the umlauts and all the different 'e’s. Plus a lot of the German vowel pronunciations don’t exist in English. French just confuses the hell out of me; I’m no good at sounding it out on my own.

I would agree with the word-for-word learning technique. I have studied and recorded various songs in Italian, French, Portuguese, and a few songs from Cirque du Soleil which are in their own made-up language. I do not always know what I am singing about, but I do take each word by itself and listen to it over and over to get the precise pronunciation.

It’s never an easy process but the rewards of knowing how hard you worked at it and accomplished it are great.

Hah! Lamia, you just brought back horrible memories of my Diction for Singers class in college. (I was also a voice major.) The funniest thing was that the class was taught by a Korean man who had an absolute terrible time with English pronounciation. I would imitate how he pronounced the name of the class, but it would come off as racist. Suffice it to say I did not learn the majority of my language skills from him.

The best thing I did was to take beginning French, German, and Italian. You learn basic vocabulary in the first semester of each, and more importantly you learn the essential pronounciation rules for each language. I can beautifully pronounce each one of those languages at sight, although I usually have only the vaguest idea what I’m reading.

Singing opera gives you the oddest vocabulary! I know how to say “butterfly” in at least three languages, but probably couldn’t order a pizza.

Oh, and for knowing whether or not you’re using a horrendous accent, believe me, there are plenty of people listening who will tell you. You just pray that they’re snickering at your butchering of their language and not because your fly is open or (horrors) you hit a lousy note.

Another choral singer here. Each language has is own peculiarities when sung.

Latin is easy to sing and sounds good.

German is a right royal bitch to sing if you don’t know German…but there is absolutely nothing else in the world that sounds as good if it is well done.

French is difficult to get right.

Spanish is pretty easy to sing, but I’ve never been impressed with the sung result.

Italian is pretty easy to sing and sounds ok.

I once sang a piece by Musgorsky, which was a nightmare to learn, as it was (of course) in Russian, and half the sounds were completely unfamiliar, We had to learn it phonetically.

But the absolute worst thing I ever sang was in Swedish. The individual syllables are fairly easy to say, but they are put together in no recognizable order. At best, what we sang was only a poor approximation of the actual text (perhaps it was backwards English!)