Hello everyone! It’s now been a while since I got back from Malta and performing in City of Humanity, but I realised I hadn’t written about what it was like to learn and perform a role in a language that I was completely unfamiliar about!
When Reuben Pace first approached me to create the role of Jean De Valette in his opera ‘City of Humanity, part I’, I was very excited about undertaking and participating in the project: it would be the first time I’d create a role and I’d get to spend a month on an island in which I had only briefly visited before.
However, with this world premiere also came the additional task of learning and memorising a role in a language which was completely unfamiliar to me. The operas that best suit my voice type are usually in French or Italian, with the occasional German incursion. In fact, I had never contacted with the Maltese language before other than hearing Maltese colleagues talk to each other. When I first received the score, I was a bit relieved because at least the alphabet was familiar but little did I know that the characters would be the only thing that was familiar...
Maltese is a fascinating language in the sense that it absorbs elements of Arabic, Italian and - while in conversation - English. It truly stands as a testimony to the incredibly diverse cultural background of this country where Peoples and Culture from Europe and the Middle East met, inevitably shaping architecture, culture and as I said, language.
After familiarising myself with the music and having an idea of what it sounded like, I started working on the language. To this effect, I asked if I could be given recordings of all my words spoken very slowly. Luckily, languages always came very easily to me (let’s not talk about all the money spent in Maths tuition while I was growing up, though) and before City of Humanity, I flash-learned the South African anthem in 3 days which encompasses no less than 3 languages: Zulu, Afrikaans and good old English.
So, I sat down with a pen, paper and the biggest mug of coffee I could find and set about writing down a phonetic ‘translation’ of the text that made sense to me.
Regarding phonetics - and this may come as a shock revelation - I never really learned the IPA phonetic alphabet for the single reason that I use the Portuguese alphabet for everything. Portuguese is an incredibly rich language in terms of vowels and consonants and we use pretty much all the possible vowels (ask me about nasal diphthongs if you want, but be prepared for a very long explanation and demonstration) and also all the consonants we might need for other languages. With this wonderfully rich alphabet in my toolbox, I set to write that translation of the beautiful Gorg Peresso libretto. I already had a translation of the actual words, so it was only a matter of making sure the sounds were right.
No amount of confidence by means of flash-learning the South African anthem could have prepared me for the wealth of sounds in Maltese. After familiarising myself with my own phonetic translation, I had a few sessions in London with Reuben to make sure I was on the right path. While the basic vowel sounds were correct, Maltese has a lot of detail in the form of glottal stops which had at this point eluded me a bit. However, with a lot of work and recording myself and working on the words with Reuben over Skype (go modern technology), I managed to prepare myself and actually start rehearsals immediately enjoying the process of diving into this character without panicking about this new language. It was obviously a work in progress and we did adjustments and corrections throughout the rehearsal period, but that’s the usual process with any opera.
It really was an enriching experience that allowed me to come into contact closely with a language that is unique and extraordinaire, and it is also a language that renders itself beautifully to being set to music.