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.

In numbers

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

Campus news

University of Leeds
A research-intensive university is investing £17 million of its own money in a state-of-the-art structural biology laboratory. The University of Leeds facility will house powerful instruments for electron microscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry, which will aid the investigation of the structure and movement of cells and pathogens. Sheena Radford, Astbury professor of biophysics at Leeds, said that the institution was set to “become one of the best resourced centres for instrumentation in structural biology in the world”.

Lancaster University
Supermarket firm Waitrose is supporting a university’s new online postgraduate course aimed at enabling the food industry to meet the challenges of future production. Students on the Lancaster University postgraduate certificate course, Food Challenges for the 21st Century, will be offered a range of modules including Food Security and Food Waste, Supply Chain Management and Consumer Behaviour.

 University of Winchester
Three universities have been awarded more than £300,000 to find out why some students spurn engagement activities designed to boost their learning. The scheme, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, involves the universities of Winchester and Exeter in tandem with London Metropolitan University. It addresses concerns that mature, international, disabled and black and minority ethnic students, as well as those who commute, are less likely to take part in activities such as getting involved in research projects.

Plymouth University
A Native American chef, food historian and photographer has been lined up to give a public lecture at a university in South West England. Lois Ellen Frank, an adjunct professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico, was due to speak about the history of Native American people at the lecture, held at Plymouth University on 10 June. It is the first in a series of events organised by the university, the City of Plymouth and the US Embassy ahead of the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower’s voyage in 1620.

De Montfort University
A Chinese foundation will donate £9 million to a UK university to fund a new business school. The donation from the Hong Kong-based Sunwah Foundation is the largest yet received by De Montfort University. The business school will be named after the foundation’s chairman, education philanthropist Jonathan K. S. Choi, whose 10-year relationship with De Montfort has now been formalised into a partnership agreement. The donation will also allow De Montfort to establish a London base.

New College of the Humanities
More than 100 sixth-form students have taken part in classes at a college’s “pop-up” school at a Welsh music festival. Philosopher Simon Blackburn and historian Suzannah Lipscomb were among the academics from the New College of the Humanities to give lectures during HowTheLightGetsIn, a “philosophy and music festival” held in Hay-on-Wye on 21-31 May. The event also featured performances by Mike Skinner of The Streets fame and singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf.

ifs University College
A new teaching qualification to enhance financial education in schools has been launched. The Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching Financial Capability has been developed by ifs University College to support teachers delivering new personal finance curriculum requirements through citizenship and maths classes. Alison Pask, vice-principal (financial capability) at ifs, said that the new teaching will require “the best possible candidates and best possible conditions to ensure it succeeds in developing confident and competent young people, which this qualification will provide”.

Royal Holloway, University of London
A university has opened its picture gallery to the public for the first time for an exhibition to mark the 800th anniversary of the “Great Charter”. Royal Holloway, University of London’s Magna Carta and the Loss of Liberties in Victorian Art features 12 paintings that explore the era’s attitudes to social injustice as well as reflecting on human rights today. The exhibition is open until 19 June.


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

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs