Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Of Operas and Language

Mary Cassatt in de Loge
What are the chances of having mentioned in conversation, twice in the same day by two different people, the composer Wagner?  I am no musician, though I've dabbled in various instruments.  And, I generally do not go around talking about composers or operas.
Yet, on that very same day, I struck up a conversation with an older fellow at the bookstore (which, I must emphasize, is quite extraordinary in and of itself as I usually have my headphones on...).  At first, it was the spiral staircase in Chambord designed by Leonardo da Vinci, then it was Wagner, the German composer and his militant style of music.  He was convinced that Wagner's music could only have come from the German language with the majority of its words in consonant endings as opposed to the Italian operas which are far more beautiful, owing, of course, to the Italian language with its vowel endings.  I have never studied Italian, but truly, thinking of the few words I know, it does seem that there are many words which end in vowels (fettucine, alfredo, spaghetti...).  The reason for Italian being the most suitable language for opera is that operas tend to need long extended notes.  Vowels lend themselves quite well to being extended indefinitely (one can sing aaaaaaaaaahhhhhh) while consonants end most abruptly and cannot be so extended.  He is absolutely correct.  Of course, when I mentioned this to a friend, she said, of course, I thought this was common knowledge.... Well, maybe to Europeans who must as a matter of course be polyglots!  But to an American, who generally isn't... I thought it was a poignant observation. Add to that, that Italian operas are more beautiful.  Besides, Americans are biased when it comes to language; we do not like to strain the language centers in our brains and thus pronounce that  the world should only have to learn English, it being the "universal" language.  I'm sure the French thought the same thing once when the French language was considered to be the educated language.  According to wikipedia, "from the 17th century to the mid 20th century, French served as the pre-eminent international language of diplomacy and international affairs as well as a lingua franca among the educated classes of Europe."  And, where will we English speakers be tomorrow?  Are there great operas in our future?  Nope, too many consonants!