Regarding Giacomo Puccini’s operas, it was once said that he wrote the music to the language. It doesn’t seem to be difficult when Italian is already come musica, “like music.”
At 4:15 p.m. today at the Hall of Christ, three Young Artists will be performing at the last Artsong recital of the season.
From Italian to French to Swedish to Dutch, the singers will be voicing the differences in style with a linguistically diverse set.
Historians often view Romantic composers of the 19th century as nationalistic, musicians who embedded their country’s patriotic flavors into their compositions.
Baritone Jeremy Johnson said that, other than the music, words themselves grew greater in importance.
“There was a huge emphasis on the text,” he said. “I find this more compelling because you really get to tell a story, speak a lot more about the drama.”
Johnson, who will be performing “Le Paon” by Maurice Ravel and two songs by Emmanuel Chabrier, picked up a bit of French during his travels to its homeland a few years ago.
Like most opera singers in training, Johnson has studied the Romance languages and all their certain intricacies.
Among the five pieces Johnson will be singing today, it’s the Swedish and the Dutch — Ture Rangström’s “Vingar i natten” and Edvard Grieg’s “Jeg elsker Dig” — with which he’s less familiar.
Johnson knows his own tone well enough to remain undaunted by the foreign dialect.
“No matter what language you’re singing in, you want to sing it with your own voice, your natural instrument,” he said. “The only difference is in the diction and [style].”
For tenor John Riesen, humor can be understood in any tongue.
Singing a “very tongue-in-cheek” version of Italian Stefano Donaudy’s “Amor s’apprende,” Riesen and his duet partner, Johnson, speak of a man’s complication from “love’s betrayal,” and the subsequent suffering of having too many fish in the sea.
Riesen, who’s “somewhat decent in German,” is also performing Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Busslied,” a hymn-like piece of atonement — a bit different than the sarcastic Donaudy.
But it’s the trio of Spanish songs that Riesen is particularly excited about.
Although Riesen took five years of it in school, he said the Italian he learned “sort of kicked out” the Spanish instruction of his past.
Yet the themes of lost love that run throughout Jacinto Guerrero’s “Flor roja” and Pablo Sorozábal’s “No puede ser!” he recognizes readily.
Riesen’s excitement for the set may lie in the language.
“He really wanted to learn the whole Spanish set,” said accompanist Dottie Randall. “There’s just something about this music that just touches his soul.”
Randall, who will be accompanying the Young Artists today, said that, although composers in this time period become more and more interested in following a text, their music doesn’t fall behind.
The French, she said are “so quintessentially French” and the Italians “have their own particular lilt to them.” Rossini “sounds like Rossini,” Ravel sounds like Ravel. The same goes for composers alike to Guerrero or Sorozábal.
“The Spanish, of course, rip your heart out and lay it on the pavement,” Randall said.
And then there’s the English.
Soprano Rachel Kim grew up in a wide range of locations — from Houston to Seoul, South Korea, to Seattle, with English as her constant language. Come studies in music diction in university, Kim was introduced to Romance languages from a singer’s perspective. Performing Leonard Bernstein’s “Dream With Me,” Kim doesn’t find the fact that it’s in a familiar dialect any more approachable than the Italian Rossini that precedes it.
“As English-speaking singers, we sometimes have the tendency to overlook how difficult it is to actually sing in our native tongue,” she said.
Even though English has just as many “rules” and “intricacies” for a newcomer as a Romantic language does, Kim said, “it becomes easier to overlook these details” when one is raised on it.
And with the Italian, Kim would agree with Puccini.
“There’s music even in the speaking of it,” she said.
Randall, who can “cope” with some of the Romance languages, and “get by” with others, said she is absolutely lost in translation with the Scandinavian set. Her philosophy, if applied to non-Romantic musicians, makes any tie between the sound and the text universal.
“The music adapts itself to the language,” she said. “The way the melodies are composed follow that language.”