Talking English: William Bolcom and Steve Blier

Steven Blier and William BolcomPhoto: Dario Acosta/Peter Smith

As Justin Davidson writes this week, operas written in English just never quite get the respect that their Italian cousins do. William Bolcom (composer of Lucrezia) and Steve Blier (director of the New York Festival of Song) spoke to Rebecca Milzoff about the particular challenges and pleasures of opera inglese.

Is it particularly difficult for an opera composer to write in English?
S.B.: I don’t think it’s technically harder if you have a true commitment to writing music that illuminates and takes you into the world of the poetry, as opposed to having the poetry sit on top of it like a little boat. I have a meter for judging songs—the “across a crowded room” meter, where word and music should fall together in such a way that they become twice as eloquent as they would be alone. You hear it all the time in Peter Grimes.
WB: The main thing is, English is a hill-and-dale language. You emphasize important words, but most importantly you need to deal with the unimportant words and de-stress them, which gives you a bumpier line. People who have written successful opera in English know that.

So what specific challenges does a singer face?
W.B.: It’s a pretty messy language. There’s an awful lot of diphthongs, fricatives—you have to cut off a note earlier than you might. You can’t do singer-y things and be understood.

Like what?
W.B.: Diction is not just getting the words clearly—it’s communicating the meaning. Lots of diction coaches don’t spend enough time on “What was this sentence supposed to mean?”
S.B.: Once you’re in English, you actually have the obligation to be clearly understood and expressive. The whole question is to get operas to be not simply clear so that you spit it out but that the nuances and character gestures in the language and music move together in the same arc.

It does seem like a flowery language, like Italian, could better mask lack of drama—there’s often so much repetition in opera.
S.B.: English will always sound more prosaic to us—it’s the language in which we say “get off my back.” But “lavando le mani”—it sounds lovely but it just means “wash your hands.” One thing that happened with supertitles is that people have suddenly realized there’s a lot of things they thought were quite high-flown that are actually nuts and bolts.
W.B.: We need to have stronger theatrical elements in English spoken opera. Maybe I should repeat more! [Laughs] I did a little bit in this new piece, trying to refer to the popular Spanish tradition known as zarzuela. Zarzuelas are not heavy stories, but full of wonderful music and witty settings. I’ve been telling people it’s a zarzuela as reimagined by the Marx brothers.

Bill, you also use rhyme in this piece—that combined with singing in English is pretty unusual in highbrow work.
W.B.: And what’s wrong with that? The great writers of the American songbook—Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Gershwin—how they set English is the way Americans actually hear music and words. And the great Broadway tradition was terrific. Something like Gilbert & Sullivan, half the fun was the funny rhymes.
S.B.: Something about the construct that rhyme can give you, and also the sense of expectation … you literally wait to hear where that line is going to go, it propels the listener through the information. I like it when composers aren’t afraid of rhyme and don’t feel it makes it too populist. The great Verdi operas and the Mozart operas are all rhymed, and they were very popular pieces too.

Talking English: William Bolcom and Steve Blier