The Spectacular Vernacular

How Ruth and Thomas Martin Brought
Opera to Life for American Audiences

"...it is obvious that if opera is looked upon as an integration of music and drama, the drama must be understood by the audience...If opera is expected to become an intrinsic part of the artistic life of a nation, it must be intelligible in all its features.”

-- Ernst Krenek

Many younger Americans have never heard an Italian or German opera sung in English. In this era of surtitles they might be unaware that, at one time, instead of the familiar “Che gelida manina” at a performance of La Bohème, Rodolfo would sing, “How cold your little hand is.” (Less fortunate operagoers might hear William Grist's more jarring “Your tiny hand is frozen.”)


The second half of the 20th Century was the Golden Age of opera in English in America, in good part thanks to the work of Ruth and Thomas Martin. Today's operatic scene still bears the Martins' influence: in addition to inspiring generations of operagoers through their clarity, musicality, and wit, the Martin translations helped popularize rarely-performed operas by a neglected composer named Mozart, bringing his works into the standard repertoire. 

 

The Case Against Intelligibility


Performing opera in the local language is a common practice In Europe, one that goes back centuries. As Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times: 

Through most of the 19th century, and in some places well into the 20th, operas were routinely translated into the language of the audience. Verdi would have found it absurd for a French audience to hear ''Il Trovatore'' in Italian. Even in Salzburg and Vienna, Mozart's operas were typically performed in German until World War II.

Not so in America where, in general, only European musical culture was deemed of high quality. Opera was an import, and sold as such; those who complained about not understanding the words were welcome to enjoy other, more lowbrow entertainment. Broadway musicals thrived, but an English translation in the opera house was likened to linguistic training wheels. H.L. Mencken famously remarked,

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"The use of the English made the performance a striking argument for the general adoption of opera in English for English-speaking audiences." 

Thomas B. Sherman, St. Louis Post Dispatch

“Opera in English is, in the main, just about as sensible as baseball in Italian.” 


Some people and institutions did push to have more opera performed in English, but progress was slow through the end of the 1930s. Opera audiences and ultimately opera itself suffered. No matter how gorgeous the music, sitting in a theater and listening to three hours of syllables was a taste that too many people, including music lovers, chose not to acquire. 

 

1941 and The Met Magic Flute
 

A less fashionable but fairly popular view held that opera was drama – or comedy – as well as music. Proponents of translated opera believed (correctly) that composers didn’t view their libretti simply as a collection of euphonious syllables to hang a tune on, but as words which worked hand-in-hand with the music to create an emotional effect. 
 

Ruth and Thomas Martin understood that opera in the vernacular more closely reflected the creators’ intention. They also contended that large new audiences would embrace opera if it were performed, as it was in Europe, in the local language. 

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"Whoever had the inspiraton to commission Ruth and Thomas Martin to make a vernacular English translation and to engage actor Alfred Lunt to stage the production was brushed with genius."

Cyrus Durgin, Boston Globe

 

Thomas Martin was born in Vienna and raised there and in Berlin. The son of a well-regarded Vienna Volksoper bass-baritone, Arthur Fleischer, Martin studied conducting at the Vienna Conservatory before coming to America as a result of the Second World War. Opera, both as music and drama, was in his blood. An accomplished pianist, he often acccompanied his father for recitals, and throughout his

life was a sought-after vocal coach who helped singers of all levels, from students to internationally renowned singers, learn their operatic roles.

His wife Ruth Martin, an American writer who studied voice and violin in Vienna and Salzburg, had a good command of operatic languages and knew how important the libretto was to the overall effect of opera. In 1941 they prepared a translation of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and presented it to Bruno Walter, the German-born music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Walter had been searching for a good English version for a new production, and hadn't found one until the Martins submitted theirs. 
 

Fans of Mozart’s operas will find it hard to believe that productions of The Magic Flute were rare at that time. Singers often performed arias from the Mozart-Schikaneder singspiel at Metropolitan Opera Galas, but the entire opera had not been staged there since 1926. 

 

Bruno Walter’s production marked a milestone for the Met. Directed by Alfred Lunt and sung in English, The Magic Flute helped begin an American revival of Mozart’s operas. To give an idea of how the opera’s popularity has grown: the Metropolitan staged The Magic Flute during 16 of the 20 years from 2001 to 2020. Of course, the work is also performed regularly by opera companies all over the

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"Along with new English words, new scenery, and other novelties in the Metropolitan's revival of  'The Magic Flute," there also seemed to be a new audience."

Robert A. Simon, The New Yorker

country. In a thorough and illuminating study of the 1941 Met Die Zauberflote production in Musical Quarterly, scholar and musicologist Christopher Lynch underscored the momentous change in attitude toward The Magic Flute that Bruno Walter and Ruth and Thomas Martin helped bring about by elevating the words and the drama to their rightful place alongside the music: “The Metropolitan’s  Die Zauberflöte, in sum, lies at a pivotal moment that witnessed the transformation of the international operatic repertoire and gave birth to new ways of thinking and speaking about opera, many of which survive to this day."

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An Operatic Career Begins
 

After The Magic Flute the Martins received more commissions for translations, including Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and The Abduction from the Seraglio. The renowned producer and impresario Michael Todd asked Cole Porter to translate Johann Strauss’s A Night in Venice for an elaborate production he was mounting for the inauguration of the Jones Beach Marine Theater in Long Island, New York. Porter declined, but having heard and liked the new Magic Flute at the Met, Porter recommended the Martins, . 

 

Cosi and the Making of a Warhorse
 

Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte is a good example of the power of opera in the vernacular. Mozart and Da Ponte’s comic opera is all talk: philosophical disputes, deceptions, seductions, quarrels, and reconciliations. The single bit of visual comedy is the revival of Ferrando and Guglielmo by magnetism. If one doesn’t know Italian it’s an evening of delightful singing, costumes, and sets, but little more. Scholars generally considered Da Ponte’s libretto silly.

Virgil Thomson, N.Y. Herald Tribune (Cosi)

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"I do not know a better published English version, in fact of any opera."

 

The Metropolitan Opera first performed Ruth and Thomas Martin’s translation of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in 1950. The opera had last been staged in 1928, and for only one performance that year. Reviewers termed the new Met production a revival.

 

They also called it a hit. Olin Downes of The New York Times credited the success in part to “the spirited English translation of the Martins. This translation and the excellent stage production of the opera have made of ‘Cosi fan tutte’ a living work of art and not a museum piece."

 

Once audiences heard it in English it became a staple of the American opera repertoire

It took less than a decade for television to grasp to the idea of opera as popular entertainment. The NBC Opera Theatre had a 14-year run broadcasting opera in  English, commissioning new operas like Amahl and the Night Visitors but also televising older operas in translation, including Martin translations of Die Fledermaus, Tales of Hoffmann, Cosi fan tutte, and Madame Butterfly

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"The present translation, by Ruth and Thomas martin, is exceptional not only in being comfortably singable, but in preserving a certain twinkle of sophistication...which... are among the charms of the original script by Lorenzo Da Ponte."

The New Yorker (Cosi)

 

Opera in English: A War of Words
 

While American audiences enjoyed hearing operas in English, American reviewers took sides for and against. Some critics were enthusiastic; others were guarded, as if comprehending the text were a guilty pleasure. And there were a number who considered it vandalism: for them, the music had been written specifically for the original words, and the English substitution was destroying the intended effect. One often heard this view from operagoers who did not speak the original languages, suggesting that American cultural insecurity, and not purism, was their motivation.
 

Anti-vernacular snobbery reached the height of absurdity when Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times in 1961 decried opera translation as the “Easy Way Out.” His diatribe left no doubt about where he stood: the subheading was, “Opera in English May Attract a Public But Its Morality is Open to Question.”


The fact that neither Mozart or any other major composer questioned the morality of translation escaped Mr. Schonberg, whose only concern was that opera not be “brought down to the level of the people.”  For such critics issuing pronouncements from on high, offering opera in translation was diluting the product and dumbing down the art.

 

Nevertheless, the appeal of intelligible opera was obvious. By the time Thomas Martin died in 1984, there were more than 40 Martin translations, all commissioned by publishers or opera companies who knew they were making a sound decision on both artistic and commercial grounds. Fifteen years after questioning the morality of translation, even Harold C. Schonberg was calling the Martins' The Daughter of the Regiment "a grand evening of fun and, along with that, the best musical comedy currently in town."

In 1948 Ruth wrote in The New York 

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"[Ruth and Thomas Martin] have again pulled off one of the most difficult of feats. With seeming ease, they have prepared an English text of the most natural-sounding speech – unforced in its diction and suitable to the music Puccini has written. That is, the vowels fall right for the long sustained notes and the translation can be sung without distorting the normal rhythms of English."

The New York Times (La Bohème)

Times: "The translator derives a great degree of satisfaction from helping to present an opera to American audiences in the way that both the composer and his librettist intended, namely, as a drama set to music, which may be enjoyed without reference to the libretto in intermissions."

 

Other translators brought their talents to the American opera world, including John Gutman, Joseph Machlis, and Andrew Porter. Yet there is no doubt that, with more than 40 operas to their credit, Ruth and Thomas Martin were the foremost opera translators of their time. 

 

The Word from Above: Surtitles Take Over
 

The 1980s brought a new technology to opera: projecting the words above the stage (or, in the patented system used by the Met, on the seat back). Surtitles brought some advantages. Singers who knew a role in Italian or German didn’t have to learn a new version. There were no more worries about hiring singers who had memorized different English translations of the same opera. Modern-day operagoers on tight schedules could attend the opera without doing research beforehand. They even came in handy for operas in the vernacular: the English National Opera, which mounts productions exclusively in English, uses surtitles because, frankly, some singers are hard to understand no matter what. 

 

Yet the nature of innovation is that a loss attends every gain; in this case the loss is the intimate connection between words and music that happens every time a lyric is sung and understood. 
 

Another element which is not gone entirely, but certainly encumbered, is the connection between artist and audience. Surtitles divert a spectator’s eyes from singer to proscenium and back a thousand times a night or more. The effect is distancing. For these and other reasons, surtitles were at first just as controversial as translations. But for better or worse — for better and worse, many would say — surtitles won out. 

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[The Marriage of Figaro] was sung in the Ruth and Thomas Martin English version and was the better for it.

 

The singers always knew exactly what they were saying and showed it... the audience knew, too, and responded with sympathy to the characters and laughter at the jokes.

The New York Times 

Fortunately, opera in English is still performed around the country, giving audiences a theatrical experience more closely connected to the intentions of the composer and librettist than one can get reading surtitles. As the conductor Mark Wigglesworth notes in Gramophone, “Few artistic experiences are more complete than understanding singers' words at exactly the moment they are sung.” Ruth and Thomas Martin devoted their lives to that very experience, and did so with skill, dedication, love, and a success which has long outlived them.