Campus close-up: University of St Andrews

Scottish institution strengthens its identity as a centre for singing and languages with pioneering new course

June 11, 2015
University of Saint Andrews students performing on stage
Source: Oli Walker
Found in translation: working on a libretto offers particular challenges – it has to be singable as well as accurate

St Andrews has long been known as “the singing university”, says Chris Bragg, concerts, performance and events administrator at the institution. Although it has not conferred music degrees since 1988, St Andrews has a major centre for recreational music-making, catering to students and the local community. It also boasts an acclaimed choir and “an extraordinary array of student-run a cappella groups, which tour America and put out charity singles which get into the charts”, Mr Bragg explains. “We have a large number of students involved in singing at a very high level.”

Along with all this, what was formerly known as St Andrews Opera has staged a production every year since 2009. After the university took over the town’s bankrupt 216-seat Byre Theatre last year, it now has a new home and has been renamed the Byre Opera. On 15, 17 and 18 June, it will perform Christoph Willibald Gluck’s 1779 opera Iphigénie en Tauride. The singers are mainly students who are taking, have taken or plan to take a third-year module on music in performance, while the instrumentalists are professional period-instrument ensembles Ars Eloquentiae and the Fitzwilliam String Quartet.

Mr Bragg says: “The theme of the opera is very current as it is all about national identity” – as relevant in Scotland as in Tauris (today’s Crimea). But since it is rarely performed, there is no English version of the French libretto. Julia Prest, senior lecturer in French at St Andrews, therefore joined forces with the Music Centre to offer what seems to be the UK’s first module in translating French opera.

This raises a number of distinct challenges that do not apply to other forms of translation. Not only must the words convey the sense eloquently, but they also need to fit the rhythm of the music and avoid combinations of consonants that are virtually unsingable. In this particular case, the director decided to play down any homoerotic tinge to the relationship between the male characters Oreste and Pylade, so that their expressions of love had to sound like deep friendship rather than something more sexual.

Those studying modern languages at St Andrews are already required to do a certain amount of translation as part of their degree and can also take an optional module in translation methodology. The new module was potentially open to a pool of about 65 third- or fourth-year students of French. Dr Prest didn’t expect many takers, but more than the maximum possible 18 students expressed an interest, whether because they wanted to avoid more literary options or because they liked the idea of a course with a practical performance outcome. Three of the students are appearing in Iphigénie and Dr Prest is in the chorus, but others had no singing ability, so she started the first class by “establishing what musical abilities there were” and using the example of Frère Jacques to explain the problems of translating a text for song.

Over the 16-hour course, the class went through the libretto scene by scene, with presentations of work-in-progress and discussions of issues such as rhyming schemes. Some students, reports Dr Prest, were much better at coming up with “nice big open vowels on high notes”, while the singers could try out alternative phrasing. For the final assessment, each student was required to produce a complete version of two consecutive acts, drawing on the work that had been done collectively, together with a 2,000-word essay justifying their choices. Course credits were largely decided on this basis, including students’ understanding of the technical terms used in translation studies.

To produce a more stylistically unified text, Dr Prest herself went line by line through the more musical versions, often singing fragments aloud to see how they sounded. It is this which will be sung later this month, credited in the programme as “prepared by Julia Prest”, although with the names of all the students also listed.

St Andrews’ pioneering course in translating French opera will not be repeated next year, since Byre Opera has already decided it will be performing an English-language opera, Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. Yet Dr Prest is determined to resurrect it in the future, whether it is tied to a performance again or just extended workshops in front of audiences.

matthew.reisz@tesglobal.com


In numbers

216: the number of seats in the Byre Theatre where the opera will be performed


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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: Seminar to stage: translation task is a ticket to the opera (11 June 2015)

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