Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Jonathan Dean's Wagnerian Summer

Jonathan Dean has been writing supertitles for Seattle Opera since 1997. This summer he’s not only working on the titles for our Tristan und Isolde, but also on new titles for a production of Wagner’s Meistersinger von Nürnberg at Cincinnati Opera at the end of June. Here Dean talks about the process of writing title scripts, the Meistersinger challenge, and his Wagner-filled summer.

You’re working on supertitles for both Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tristan und Isolde this summer, Wagner’s great comedy and great tragedy, respectively, and also the two operas he wrote in the midst of writing Der Ring des Nibelungen. That must make for an interesting summer.
It’s like a partial Ring cycle. You know, in Bayreuth every summer they do seven Wagner operas, usually the four Ring operas plus three of the remaining six (Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, the early trilogy; Tristan and Meistersinger, the middle-of-the-Ring siblings; and/or Parsifal, Wagner’s final message to the troops). It’s obviously best to experience the Ring as a festival, that’s how he intended it. But it works great to do the others in festival-mode, too, they’re all extremely rich, long and complicated, and deeply interconnected. It’s often been said that Wagner didn’t write ten operas, he wrote one extremely long opera in ten humongous acts.

Since they were written around the same time, do you see similarities between the two?
Absolutely. Tristan and Meistersinger are this yin-yang pair: Tristan is a cri de coeur of boundless expression, the triumph of chromaticism, solipsism, embracing chaos, and selfish selfish selfish; whereas Meistersinger is a celebration of order and structure, of good old-fashioned tonality, and song forms. Its story is about the triumph of community, it’s an ensemble comedy in which the selfishness of each character may generate comedy and plot twists, but the moral is that each of us is only a small part of a dazzling whole, and if you can move your consciousness to perceive some greater part of that whole, well, that is God. It’s hard to imagine these two operas without each other: I think that for Wagner, writing Tristan was like rolling around in a deeply satisfying but messy tub full of mud, and he needed Meistersinger, like a spray hose, to rinse it all off so he could get back to living something resembling normal life.

The Meistersinger is for Cincinnati Opera. How did you get connected with them?
Chris Alexander is directing Meistersinger for this very special production at Cincinnati Opera, he asked me to do the titles. The scripts I’ve written for some of his Seattle Opera productions are as much a part of those productions as the sets or costumes, and when other companies have presented Chris’s productions they’ve often used our titles. Although Chris hasn’t yet directed Wagner in Seattle, he’s seen many of our Wagner productions and (I like to think) trusts me with these complicated libretti.

Do you often write titles for other companies?
More often other opera companies take scripts and scores I originally created for Seattle and adapt them to their productions. I’ve really only done three original scripts for other companies with no intention of using them in Seattle: Don Carlo, Il trittico, and now Meistersinger.

When you write a completely new title script, what’s the process?
First I try to learn the opera, that is, get so familiar with the text and music that I can basically sing along in the original language (in my terrible voice) to the whole thing. Then I hand-write a word-for-word translation; it takes forever, but I’ve found that it’s a good way to force myself to take the time to think about every word and why it’s there. The next step is to sit down with a native speaker and try to figure out the hard spots; it’s gratifying to know that what baffles me in an opera libretto tends to baffle native speakers, too! Then I arrange a preliminary set of titles in the original language, mostly as a way of figuring out where in the score each title will begin and end. If I’ve done all that work properly, getting the first draft of an English captions script flows pretty quickly. That all happens way in advance, and then, depending on the production, cast, and director, we may rewrite titles and rearrange cues all the way through the rehearsal process.

What’s been your experience working on Meistersinger?
Meistersinger is fiendish. The German is extremely funny, very colloquial, occasionally bawdy, and the whole thing rhymes. Since the story is about a song contest, they’re constantly singing little inset songs, moments in the story where the characters stop ‘talking’ (only their opera-talking is really singing) and begin ‘singing’ (and two of the songs are so bad, in the story, they cause riots). Since for me, the only sensible way to title a song-within-a-song is to write a singing translation, that is, a translation that could be sung to those notes—and since English is close enough to German that you can occasionally use the same rhymes, that is, if somebody sings “Schuh” and you read “Shoe” then it better rhyme, on the line below it in the supertitle, with “you” or “two” or “slew” or “glue”—titles for those scenes are nearly impossible to craft satisfactorily. But since they’re the best scenes in the opera—Walther’s ‘audition’ aria, Sachs’s cobbling song, Beckmesser’s serenade, the “Wach’ auf” chorus, Walther’s prize song, and so forth—I want want want to be able to do them justice.

You’re heading out to Cincinnati for the dress rehearsals this weekend. What will you do there?
Cut lots of titles, I hope. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is extremely long, that’s one of the reasons why it’s rarely performed; it’s a very chatty comedy, and my original version of the script had 1382 titles—about 150 lines more than Siegfried, previously the longest script I’d ever done. (A normal 2 ½ hour opera, say by Verdi, for example, has around 500 titles.) I tend to write too much (some assert it’s a problem Wagner himself had!), and thin them out a bit during the rehearsal process…once the singers are in the room, it usually becomes obvious what doesn’t need a title.

For our Tristan in August, what’s the revision process to the titles you wrote for Seattle Opera’s 1998 Tristan?
That was my first Wagner script, and, although I’d do everything differently today if I were doing it from scratch, I worked hard on that at the time and it’s pretty good…several other companies have used it since. The director, Peter Kazaras, is working on the script now (he actually had some input on it back in 1998); hopefully when rehearsal starts in a couple of weeks he and I will have a game plan for tone, diction, etc., and then we’ll probably spend some time together, in late July, rewriting. And Speight Jenkins will be in on the rewrites, too.

Do you fluently speak the languages of all the operas for which you produce titles?
I would never presume to write a translation of an opera from a language I haven’t studied. [Dean, for example, doesn’t speak Hungarian, so he didn’t do the titles for Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung in 2009.] I have been fluent, in the past, in French, German, and Italian, and have done 70-some operas in those languages. However, fluency in a language is like a muscle—use it or lose it—and since living in Seattle I’ve mostly used those languages in one direction only, from the original into English. So when I travel, I invariably embarrass myself, trying to talk to people (in Italy, France, or Germany) and coming off sounding like an opera character!


  1. Hallo, Jon & Blog-Readers!!
    A mOST interesting interview!!!
    MANY thanks, Jon, for telling us how you finally (after MUCH work) arrive at your finished titles. Now, we know why they are always as near;y perfect a "fit" as humanly possible!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Win H.

  2. Thanks for the interesting interview. Jon is a hard worker.
    I want to share with you my recording list

  3. have you heard this music? Listen here: I am really attracted by its melody. This song is really cool

  4. I surfed the web and accidentally found a piece of music called: Best cute flute. From the day I heard it, I found it very interesting and lovely, so I installed this music as a ringtone for my son's phone.