Mark Wigglesworth is a former Music Director of English National Opera and a passionate advocate of ENO's policy of staging opera only in the English language. That policy was called into question in a recent interview on Bachtrack: we think it's an important debate and are therefore delighted that Wigglesworth has contributed this opposing view.

Mark Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Mark Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega

The rumours whispering through the cracks of the London Coliseum are alarming for those who believe English National Opera has a vital role to play in making opera accessible to all. If the language policy that forms such a pillar of its identity is abandoned, it would be a betrayal of the company’s most valuable mission to perform opera in a way that can be understood by the largest number of people.

The company cares about accessibility. But many forms of entertainment, from rock concerts to football matches, prove that within reason, accessibility is not really about the price of a ticket. For accessibility to be meaningful and long lasting it has to come from the work itself. No amount of pricing structures, auditorium lighting effects, or casual dress codes, are going to succeed if the performances themselves don’t reward people’s decision to come. When Mozart wanted to write for ‘the people’ he did so in their native German. He trusted that if more people understood the piece, more would enjoy it.

The initial impulse behind the creation of an opera is almost always a dramatic one. Most composers choose to write for the stage because they want to express drama through music - not the other way round. They may have the odd melody in mind, but they don’t write the music and then ask for the text. The words come first.

Just as the words lead the music in the composer’s creative process, so should they lead the experience for the audience. And if opera is drama first and foremost, why is the question of the language it’s sung in so hotly debated? Shouldn’t the same rules as drama apply? I don’t hear complaints about Ibsen or Chekhov being compromised by translations. There’s an acknowledgement in the theatre that drama has to express itself as directly and immediately as possible.

The most valid counter-argument is that the sound of the language is an inherent part of the expression - that the colour of the original words is connected to the colour of the notes. But beauty is not as powerful a medium as meaning. That’s not a radical opinion. It was almost 500 years ago that the Council of Trent decreed people should sing ‘so that the words are more intelligible than the modulations of the music.’

For some people, words in opera don’t matter that much at all. They don’t want to know the details of what the characters are saying, believing the music tells them all they need to feel. But composers don’t want their operas to sound like staged concerts. They want them to be theatrical.

A more unspoken view is one that thinks singing in a foreign language ‘keeps the riff-raff away’. An accusation of vanity is unfair to the majority of original language devotees but I do believe a certain pleasure in cultural elitism exists, even if only by a few.

It’s well documented how much opera composers have cared about audiences being able to understand the words. Both Verdi and Wagner were energetically supportive of translations. If we could ask them about surtitles, I suspect they wouldn’t understand the question. It would have been inconceivable to them that the words wouldn’t have been understood in the first place. Librettos were readily available to those with more time and curiosity than we allow ourselves today, but I cannot believe that opera would have captured the fascination of so many if the public hadn’t been able to hear most of the text in real time.

I respect that many people value surtitles as a way of increasing their engagement. But it’s an engagement that actually takes them away from the stage, away from the performers. In that sense it works against accessibility. And I wonder if engagement that isn’t aural is as valid as it needs to be for opera to work its magic. If people say they like the original language because of how it sounds, why welcome a tool that makes it harder to really listen?

I remember hearing almost every word when I went to the Coliseum in the 1980s. The company had a passion for that to be the case. Good diction essentially comes from an attitude of mind and if singers don’t embrace their responsibility to make the text clear, it doesn’t matter what language they sing in. Whether surtitles have given rise to complacency or a lackadaisical approach created a desire for them I am not sure, but when singers do care about the text, and are given conditions in which to do so by both conductors and directors, audiences are dramatically more engaged by the commitment to communication. The essence of opera lies not in the words and the music but in the glue that joins them together. Hearing both text and tone at exactly the same moment is the whole point.

Of course translations have to be good. And the best evolve during rehearsals that ask those involved to think precisely what it is the composer and librettist mean. The text becomes intrinsically connected to the production. One of the benefits of performing in the language of the audience is it means you are normally performing in the language of the singers too. An infinite collection of personal and cultural resonances, an accumulation of linguistic intuitions, enables an intensity of expression that arises from the subtlest of natural stresses and the most poignant of subconscious inflections. And if singers have advocated for what they want to sing, their specificity makes it unlikely they will just ‘sing along to the music.’ With such ownership, an art-form regularly criticised for alienating its audience, does exactly the opposite. An egalitarian understanding of the words unites everyone.

The idea that opera can only work in its original form is a dangerously small step from saying that Italian or German opera can only be done well by Italians or Germans. Operas are enriched by the breadth of styles that perform them and a variety of approaches is beneficial overall. There’s no one way to enjoy opera, and we should celebrate this inherent diversity. Now is not the time to make it narrower. That’s not accessibility, that’s elitism.

We are lucky in London to have access to a wide range of operatic experiences. If that is lost, not every company will survive. Without pride in its past and faith in its future English National Opera will struggle to maintain its distinctive raison d’être. On its own terms it can have a unique role as a company unified by its artistic identity, performing for an audience that wants to be part of that identity too. I believe that audience exists. As ENO used to say: Opera in English speaks for itself.