Monday, January 17, 2011

The challenges of singing in Czech

While Rusalka is regarded by many people as a masterpiece of the operatic repertoire, it is rarely performed. The main stumbling block is language. Few opera singers are trained to sing in Czech. As rehearsals begin for Rusalka this week, we asked a few questions of our Czech language coach Petra Ulrych as she prepares to help our singers tackle this somewhat daunting challenge.

You have a quite a bit of experience with the Czech language. Would you mind telling us a little bit about how you got interested in the language and the culture?

Because I don't speak with an accent in English, many people don't immediately know that I am Czech! I was born there a year before the Warsaw Pact troops occupied the country in 1968, so I grew up speaking Czech at home with my parents. I came to the US when I was 2 years old, so I learned English at school and from Sesame Street! My mother was very strict in her desire to have her children retain the Czech language, so despite the fact that she learned English, she would basically pretend to not hear us unless we spoke to her in Czech, so I quickly came to understand as a child that if I wanted to eat, I had to say to, "Mam hlad!" not "I'm hungry!"

When I was in my early twenties, Communism was overturned in the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia), and I was able to live in Prague for a year and a half, and I interned at the Academy for the Performing Arts. I made my living teaching English to Czech students in the Music, Film, Theatre, and Art Academies, and they taught me all the good slang of the day. To supplement my meager teaching salary, I did my fair share of translation work (primarily Czech to English) as there were very few "native" speakers of both English and Czech in the early 1990s in Prague. So, while my grammar still is quite imperfect in Czech (grammar is incredibly difficult in Czech), I understand Czech without needing to translate in my head, and I am lucky to have spoken it since birth, so the phonemes and sounds don't sound foreign to me. I hold a BA in Theatre and Communications, so I have very much enjoyed learning dialects, accents, and language, and I was lucky enough to have direct instruction on "standard stage Czech" working with Czech actors, singers, and artists while I lived in Prague. I can hear my own American accent creep into my Czech when I haven't been speaking it frequently or when I am speaking to a Czech person that I don't know so well and am nervous. Czechs are very prideful of their language, and they are very quick to correct you!

So, I grew up steeped in Czech culture with my mother reading Capek's Kocicka a Pesek (Kitty and Doggie) stories and listening to Czech fairy tales on 45s that my grandparents mailed to us, and as an adult I have been happy to retain my Czech language, as it has helped me understand who and whence I come from, even though I don't have many opportunities to speak Czech! There just aren't that many of us in the world who speak Czech!

What are some basic things to remember when trying to pronounce Czech words? Any helpful tips for beginners or those new to the language?

Wow, tough question! Czech is really a very phonetic language, unlike French or English. When you learn the Czech alphabet, you learn the sounds that each letter makes. Those letters always make the same sounds, unlike English vowels which have multiple pronunciations. So, learning the Czech alphabet is really helpful because if you know what each letter sounds like (and remember this is consistent) then you just string them together. Czech uses diacritical marks that tell you very overtly when a letter is to make a different sound, so the letter "s" is the same in English, but the letter "s" with the diacritical mark called a hacek (little v over it) makes the sound that our "sh" combo in English makes. There are very few spelling rules, in fact, Czech doesn't have a verb that means "to spell," instead people simply say, "How do you write that?" and then they just sound out the word more slowly, emphasizing each individual sound.

Some of the singers from Rusalka have said that singing in Czech can be very difficult because there are so many pairings of consonants and few vowels. What is some advice specifically for singers who are attempting to sing Czech repertoire?

Yes, English speaking people tend to be thrown off by the Czech consonant combinations, I believe, mostly because they are unfamiliar consonant combinations. Take for example Rusalka's composer, Dvořák. A "d" followed by a "v" is not something that happens in English words, but I think you just have to slow down your tongue and brain for a moment, tell yourself, over 10 million Czech speakers make these sounds every day... and think about mashing the two together instead of thinking that there needs to be a syllable break between the consonants, in the same way that no English speaker hesitates when they see "gl" as in "glow" or "tw" as in "tween" or "str" as in "street."

By far the hardest Czech phoneme is ř. This is most often described as a combined rolled "r" (like in Spanish or Italian) with a "zh" (like television), and while that is true, I think English speakers then think they must make each sound distinctly with a vowel breaking it up. Most English speakers pronounce "Dvořak" as a 3-syllable word, "da-vor-zhak" but it's a 2-syllable word..."Dvo-rzhak." The best way to learn the pesky "r" sound is to roll your "r" and then to bite down on it with your teeth, much like you would if you were a ravenous dog wanting to learn Czech! Many Czech children don't master the "r" until age 6 - 8 years of age, so it's not the easiest thing! So, knowing the syllable count is helpful to know where to smash things together!

Do you have any favorite moments from Rusalka?

How can anyone not love Ježibaba's conjuring the potion scene? Also, the joy and majesty in the wedding march is tasty especially because we know that the prince will ultimately reject poor Rusalka, so it is bittersweet!

We’ve started to immerse ourselves in Rusalka and the music of Dvořák. Who are some other Czech artists that you might suggest we familiarize ourselves with?

My all-time favorite musical piece by a Czech composer is Smetana's the Vlatava from his Ma Vlast (My Country). I cannot listen to that without crying! I also love all Czech fairy tales, as they are odd combinations of darkness and magical creatures that can hurt you or be helpful. Dvořák's Carnival Overture, Op. 92 is not as well known as his New World Symphony, but I like the exuberance and joy that we hear in the Carnival piece. Prague and the Czech Republic are often seen through a very dark and Gothic lens (Kafka-esque), but Czechs can also be joyful, and so I like the Carnival Overture for that reason. I think if one loves magic and fantasy, the world of Czech puppetry is absolutely fantastic, including the Black Light Theatre convention.

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