July 20, 2004

Operatic IPA

Dorothea Salo at Caveat Lector wonders "where [Renée] Fleming learned IPA".

Dorothea starts with description of choristers being forced to sing from a Lord of the Rings score in which "[f]or example, Osgiliath is written 'awss-ghee-lee-ahth'". She commiserates with David Salo, who owns up with a groan to having been forced to provide such pseudo-phonetics, but also tells another story:

Toward the end of the whole long Return of the King scoring ordeal, David got a request for a translation to be sung by Renée Fleming. And this time, please, could we have the transcription in IPA?

“Whoa!” I whoaed. “You’re writing lyrics for Renée Fleming? And she wants ‘em in IPA? Wow. That’s just cool.”

“Who’s Renée Fleming?”

“Argh! Philistine! Only, like, über-diva. And she knows IPA, too! Points for her. And you’re writing lyrics for her! Squee!” And I went on squee-ing until he believed me about her über-diva-dom.

So there it is. Singers are not brainless prats; they can handle smart transcriptions. I do wonder where Ms. Fleming learned IPA, though. Somehow I don’t think they teach it in music schools.

Well, IPA (the International Phonetic Alphabet) seems to be the standard way to represent operatic libretti for singers to use: see for example this discussion of the Layerle Three-line Phonetic Translation System.

The now famous Leyerle Three and four-line Phonetic-Translation System consists of the International Phonetic Alphabet spelling of the foreign language text on the first line, the original foreign language on the middle line, and the word-for-word English translation on the third line. When further explication of an otherwise difficult to understand passage in the word-for-word translation is needed, a fourth line, presented in a more literary translation, is given.

According to her web site, Fleming studied at SUNY Potsdam, Eastman and Julliard. I don't know for sure, but I bet that she learned IPA as a standard part of her training, and that most other operatic singers do, too.

[Update: Eric Bakovic testifies to have once witnessed IPA being taught at a drama class at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 20, 2004 01:09 PM