Opera North: Puccini's La Bohème
Cubist painting

Found in Translation: Amanda Holden's La Bohème

The La Bohème at Blow-Me-Down Farm, is set by stage director Helena Binder in a bohemian Paris in the Twenties. The palette for the design was inspired by the Cubist painting (above). As she said, “We’re approaching this La Bohème like no one’s seen it before. It’s young and fun.”

And Puccini’s beloved classic will be sung in English.

Louis Burkot chose carefully when selecting which translation to use: one done by Amanda Holden for the English National Opera. At its debut in 1987, it was hailed as “...a much-needed and excellent new translation … clear, faithful, perceptive yet also cleverly cross-rhymed. A triumph.”

You might not think much about translations, especially opera translations, except to wonder about Opera North’s La Boheme, “How will they do that?”

Fortunately for us, Amanda Holden has thought about this question a lot.

Here are some excerpts from interviews and articles Amanda has offered over her career:

“When you go to the theatre and hear a play in translation, you don’t usually think about the translator behind the work, and few care to know who has written it. And yet it is hugely important in making the work flow.

“If there used to be a problem with sung translations, it might have been because the words were old-fashioned and sounded clunky. A few decades ago, at my first visit to Carmen at Covent Garden, I heard: ‘Toreador now guard thee, toreador, toreador…/ Bear thou in mind when combat thee elates,/Two dark eyes fondly regard thee/ And love is your reward.’

“We translators are chameleon-like writers who must match the original’s inflexion, sense, rhyme, clarity and singability. It was great to rewrite those lines I heard in Carmen so long ago [as]: ‘Toreador be ready, toreador, toreador…./ And think of this before you draw your sword,/Two dark eyes watch you fight/And love is your reward.’”  Excerpted from The Stage, April 12, 2019

If you saw the Always ON Sunday Coach's Corner discussion between Louis and Resident Artist Arianna Rodriguez, who will sing Musetta, you heard them talk about that flow. In particular, they talked about how the emphasis must shift in certain words when they’re sung in English instead of Italian. Here’s what Amanda had to say on that subject:

“An opera translator must hear what’s on the page, and try to ensure that the new words – written to be sung and heard, not read or said – fit the music like a glove. This has to include stresses, rhymes, allowing for the singer’s needs – phrasing, breathing – and remembering the problems of the words `going over’ in a large space.

“For me, the only way to get [this right]… is to listen to the piece until the sound and as much detail as possible (stresses, rhymes, word-settings, etc.), get into my system by a kind of osmosis. I know this process is complete when hear the music in my head as I look at it on the page.”

In 2003, Amanda discussed that discovery a bit more and suggests why Opera North is so enthusiastic about having her Bohème to perform:

“A translation isn’t any good if it sounds like a translation. Not only must it aspire to ‘read’ (and ‘sing’) as convincingly as the original, but also the original language is best displaced by something that relates closely to it in both character and meaning; and that means in style too, something that is easily overlooked…The translator should be invisible: his/her responsibility is to the work and to the audience.”

Even with fifteen years of opera translation experience, you may be surprised to learn she does not believe that an expert knowledge of the original language is essential for a translator. “Desirable, yes; essential, no,” she says. “But an elastic sensitivity to one’s own language is much more important. For this endless task I use the biggest available dictionaries, the more the merrier, as the responsibility is to use words utterly appositely, in meaning and sound; I sometimes think I’ll end up knowing Roget’s Thesaurus by heart.”

Listening to Amanda Holden, we look forward to hearing (and not noticing) what her talent will bring to La Bohème at Blow-Me-Down Farm.

“It’s a major responsibility and rather challenging work,” she said. “But [it’s] a wonderful way to discover a great work of art… I shall go to my grave insisting that a good translation provides a more satisfactory theatrical evening than one spent hearing a text sung in a language that is neither yours nor, as so often, the singers’.”