The Deleterious Effects of Singing in a Foreign Language

I’ve recently been reading the work of author Edward Foreman, who has shared much of his writing with me via email. His research and writing on singing is based in intensive historical scholarship and his particular musical worldview. His writings challenge much of modern pedagogy, but if entertained can broaden a teacher’s perspective.

His research and writing on singing is based on an extensive historical scholarship and his particular musical worldview. He challenges much of modern pedagogy, which can be shocking at first blush, but if entertained can broaden a teacher’s perspective on the singing art.

This essay, written by him, describes the negative aspects of training singers to sing in foreign languages that they do not speak. If we are aiming for a vocal art based on communication, we need to evaluate if giving a student something in a foreign language is in their best vocal and artistic interest.

The BIG problem is that since so much of the repertoire is in foreign languages, or indecipherable English, we have made singing into a musical experience instead of a vocal experience. Consider how much music we know only from recordings, especially operas. When the visual and the verbal are both absent, we’re simply listening to the voice, not to what the voice is doing. This makes it an elevated, personalized kind of clarinet recital which has nothing to do with vocal communication except on the lowest level, the visceral communication of human vocal vibrations to a receptor tuned to human vocal vibrations. The other three levels of communication(1) are cut off, so singing unintelligibly is giving only 25% of the potential communication.

On the other hand, that visceral communication is very powerful, very primitive, and by calling it “singing” we avoid facing the fundamental sexual appeal—not nice in “civilized society”— of real singing. Both the American and British audiences are prudes, out of touch with their deepest emotions — pay attention to the failure of wildly popular Italian and Spanish singers in both countries (2)—and so they repress those responses unless they can be cloaked in “art.”

Look at who founded the Met! Rich, highly repressed Victorians who insisted on hearing singing in the original languages, French or Italian or German. The classic case is probably Boris Godonov, which was first sung at the Met in Italian by a Polish bass! When Chaliapin sang it there in Russian, the chorus sang in Italian and some of the other principals sang in German. Opera in English—either original or translated—has had a very hard time at the Met and at other companies in this country. It’s not because English is difficult to sing—that’s an old, old canard that simply isn’t true, even John Dowland knew that!—it’s because comprehensible English is simply too blatant for repressed audiences to handle. Particularly if they know anything about euphemisms in the Elizabethan style.(3)

So we listen to singers bellowing in foreign languages and call it “art.” Or “ART.” It gives us a very safe, isolated sense of self-righteousness and superiority while protecting us from our own “base instincts.” Everybody knows Mimi and Rodolfo lived (in sin) together, but when its in Italian you don’t have to acknowledge it. There are plenty of parallel repressions in US social history: race, sexual preference, class all come to mind. Until the boy “comes out” to his parents they can pretend not to know he’s gay, or at least not admit it to themselves, and so on. The same hypocrisy is at work in “singing.” Which, as we all believe, is about the music and the voice, and to Hell with the poet’s emotions.

Singing is, first and foremost, about communication, which requires understandable words. “All the rest,” as Hamlet says, “is silence.” Except that understandable words are derived from identifiable vowel sounds. If singers don’t have standards, audiences won’t learn them, and they’ll never know what they’re missing.

Modern vocal pedagogy subscribes—knowingly or not, the jury is still out—to this same repressive attitude toward singing in general and clarity of enunciation in particular. “Tone” is everything, and the books are full of how to make a “beautiful tone,” as though this were an absolute susceptible to measurement and not a subjective judgment at the deepest level. One person’s “beautiful tone” is another person’s “mush.” If I, the teacher, have a “tone ideal” in my inner ear, I will find a way to teach my most malleable students how to produce it, and then applaud them for their “talent,” which is actually “imitative capacity.”

In such an environment, words cease to be important and communication can only be at that most primitive, atavistic level, which must then be cloaked in “art” in order to avoid admitting we find this or that sound “sexy.” Joseph Kerman, in calling Tosca “that shabby little shocker,”(4) inadvertently reveals the shameful nature of that opera’s appeal to our primal sense of sexual energy. Significant numbers of writers have hijacked opera for other intellectual agendas, all seemingly aimed at ignoring or denying the fundamental appeal to the non-intellectual, sensual side of human nature.

These same intellectuals endure lengthy Lieder recitals or evenings devoted to French mélodies because they are safe. Emotional content is obscured by the foreign language and almost anything else can be praised because everything else is externals, of relatively little real importance, but there to distract the mind from the real matter at hand: Communication.

As for the effects of foreign language on the singers themselves, there is an adverse focus on sound at the expense of communication. Alternately, being hampered by a foreign language,the singer may take to “indicating”—through facial or bodily movements—the content of the text he/she is trying to convey, a distortion politely known as “mugging.” I recall watching the famous Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff get down and try to dance Mussorgsky’s “Trepak” in order to drive his point home. This is not recommended even for the seasoned recitalist.

The use of gesture in recitals—and on stage in opera—is dangerous unless the gesture arises from the necessity of the words. A local singer, essaying a Schumann Lied about flowers for a master class by Gerard Souzay, stared so fixedly at the floor in front of him that Souzay finally stopped him mid-phrase and asked what he was looking at. “I’m looking at the flowers,” he said. “Oh,” replied Souzay, “I did not see zem. Are zey bleu?” This is to be avoided by any performer. Staring at the floor does not convey the presence of flowers in any language; in German it is perhaps less useful than in English.

It is my contention that had the singer been singing in clearly intelligible English, everyone might have seen the flowers, without the fixed stare. But singing in German preserves the poet’s original and the composer’s intentions, or at least those are the arguments usually put forth by those opposed to translation.

The question of translation is a touchy area. On the one hand it is argued that the vowel sounds of the original are integral to the authentic sound of the piece, be it song or aria. Preserving the sound at the expense of the sense does not seem terribly logical, and it may be observed that in other countries translation is taken for granted, and has been practiced routinely for at least as long as recordings have existed. There are some rather terrifying examples of Schubert Lieder sung in French, for instance, terrifying not because of the translation but because of the style of singing in which they are delivered. Operas are ordinarily sung in the local language in France, Germany and Italy, giving us excerpts from I maestri cantori and Les Walkyries and Die Hochzeit des Figaros, for instance. One may presume this obtains in other countries as well, Japan being an exception, where Western culture is admired in its pristine, original state.

In American, translation into English is a “hot potato” issue. Interestingly enough, even those operas originally composed to English words—or the few permitted to be translated—are served up with surtitles or other visual commentary, since the sung texts cannot usually be understood anyway, thus rendering the question of translation moot, or as good as.

Opera managers—who used to go by the illustrious title “impresario”—are obviously still inclined toward operas in the original language, which has required singers to learn to sing in Russian and Czech, among other less-frequently heard tongues. This seems to be aimed at pleasing those same intellectuals who spend so much time arguing the merits of this or that assumed importance of opera in service to their own agendas. Apparently it has never occurred to opera managers that pleasing the public—by making opera accessible in their own language—is far more important for the box office. The box office, notoriously, does not pay the majority of production costs, which are ordinarily borne in this country by wealthy patrons, who presumably prefer their opera unintelligible to preserve a veneer of sophisticated elitism.

Those countries in which opera is routinely performed in the local language have governmental subsidy for opera, a recognition of opera’s importance in the cultural and entertainment lives of the taxpayers. American efforts to popularize opera have fallen short because it is perceived as a foreign import, an “upper class” diversion which is easily caricatured, and somehow remote from popular culture or understanding.

It has also been argued that the repertoire of songs and operas in English lacks both the history and the substance of the Continental repertoires, and so one decides whether to sing the original languages or the usually stilted translations made by unimaginative non-poets in the 19th century.

Fortunately there seems to be a small group of dedicated individuals who have begun making singable, sensible translations of various songs, arias and operas. One of these days the pendulum is likely to swing strongly in the direction of translation—it may well become chic to sing in one’s native tongue—and then a whole mass of singers will be in trouble once the audience demands that the words be understandable, since they’ve been translated. That will put the fox among the chickens, without a doubt.

It may look as though this were a plea for translation of foreign texts, and to some small degree, it is. But more importantly, it is a plea for comprehensibility in singing words in any language. There do exist people with sufficient command of foreign languages to be able to catch a good percentage of a well-enunciated text in at least one, and sometimes in more than one. It availeth them naught if all they hear is garble, indistinct vowels and sloppy consonants.

The only solution to the poverty of the English-language repertoire is programs to encourage the creation of new works. Some such programs do exist, but for the most part they are severely under-funded and receive minimal publicity and exposure. Meanwhile the Broadway musical has taken up the challenge with increasingly complex scores which approach opera in scope and execution. Unfortunately, classically-trained singers do not find a congenial and welcoming atmosphere on Broadway, and are faced with the dilemma that the only interesting music being composed in English bypasses their training.

As some American singers have demonstrated, classical training does not permit them to “cross-over” from their home repertoire to popular or Broadway styles convincingly. There have been exceptions like South Pacific in which the smooth voice of Italian Ezio Pinza and his piquant English pronunciation suited the suave character of Émile de Becque; of course the role was conceived with him in mind.

Eileen Farrell, of an earlier generation, and Dawn Upshaw of the present, are rare examples of singers equally at home in English and foreign languages, popular song and opera. Both display a remarkable and convincing respect for the words, no matter the language, and both are mistresses of the various styles. Among male singers Jerry Hadley and Thomas Hampson are equally rare examples of successful “cross-over” artists with a sense of enunciation and the value of the text.

The much-admired Renée Fleming, on the other hand, seems never to have met a vowel with which she is on comfortable speaking terms, and both consonants and style appear as generalized approximations. Her popular music style is embarrassing, like watching Russians trying to skate to American music. When we understand that she is really the best American soprano-of-the-moment—with apologies to Dawn Upshaw, who is arguably the best American singer of our times—it brings home the realization that singing is in pretty bad shape, which is directly attributable to the teachers.

Miss Fleming is an outstanding example of the best vocalizing America can offer, but there is very little substance to anything she sings, and the message seems to be centered on the voice and not on singing at all.

Singing—as demonstrated by Dawn Upshaw now and a few in each preceding generation—is about the text expressed through musical ideas which are reflected in the sound of the word in the voice. There is such a marriage between sound and word that they emerge as one event, the meaning of the word bringing forth the appropriate color of the voice, which is, after all is said and done, only a tool for the communication of thoughts and emotions.

When the words are missing in action, the only thing left to the listener is a musical experience. Clarinets and oboes can replace voices without words, and they will have better intonation.


1. The four levels of communication, as outlined in my Transformative Voice are: (1) the dictionary definition; (2) the emotional content expressed through timbre; (3) empathetic muscular response in the listener; and (4) the consistency between (1) meaning and (2) timbre. The vibratory response is subsumed in (3), and where the words are unintelligible, (4) is impossible.

2. Aureliano Pertile, whom Toscanini preferred to all other tenors, got very short shrift at the Met and went back to be idolized in Italy.

3. One example is “death,” a euphemism for sexual orgasm.

4 Kerman, Joseph. Opera as Drama. NY, 1956, p. 254. If there is a heaven, may Mr. Kerman be forced to sit and listen to endless repetitions of Puccini’s operas until he gets a grasp of his own nature and comes to terms with his love-hate relationship with Puccini.