On this page: Carmen in Oyama - Opera in translation - Singing in Japanese - Marrying a Norwegian - Links


Gipsy girl dead on stage

Act 1 Chorus
Act 1: Cigarette girls and company wait for Carmen (Oyama Opera Ensemble)


Carmen in Oyama

Act 2: Tavern
(I get to whisper Mercedes' words in her ear?)

Escamillo with ladies

Finale: the blood

27th May 2000

Trusting people, wives - I got home around one in the morning last Sunday, with a story about being dropped off on the river bank by a gipsy girl, probably off to play cards with a couple of friends. Would you believe that?

Actually I was quite tired after the party that wound up our performance of Carmen, particularly as in between we had to reassemble the part of the hall over the orchestra pit. But I am grateful to Yagi-san (yes, Carmen, "la Carmencita, comme tu voudras") for the lift home. And how did I get involved in my first appearance on the operatic stage for about 25 years? For three years now I've been singing in the bass section of the "Sano Citizens Ninth Chorus", which despite its soviet-style name simply means we do Beethoven's Ninth (symphony) in December every year. In January there was an appeal for chorus members to join the group in Oyama (about 20 km away), so off I went.

Although I first hit the boards as the Midshipmite in a performance of HMS Pinafore in May 1956 (just 44 years ago!), I'd been away from opera for a long time. Remembering all those years ago, my most vivid impression is of how little changes across the decades and continents. The very term "prima donna" refers to the female lead, and everyone knows how difficult she and all the other principals must be. But the reality, at least in amateur companies, is so different: the fact is that opera is hard, smelly work (=sweat + grease-paint), and nothing compares in getting people to work together. Even Arime-san, putting in a guest appearance as Don Jose, was to be seen after the performance bolting seats back over the orchestra pit.

The last "grand" opera group I belonged to was Opera Primavera, in London in the 1970s. The Oyama group is on the same general level - enthusiastic, but definitely amateur, chorus, and mostly professionally trained principals. Apparently the trigger behind the formation of the group was the music department at Hakuoh University in Oyama, whose staff form the majority of the principals and voice trainers in the company, and which provides the rehearsal venue. I long assumed this was a music department, but no, the sad economic fact is that these talented musicians apparently spend much of their time trying to get students up to scratch on Three Blind Mice on the piano, so they can become state-registered kindergarten teachers, or something of that ilk.

For me this was the biggest scale production I've been involved in: Carmen is in four acts, and the chorus are heavily involved throughout. (Compare the Marriage of Figaro, which we did with Opera Primavera, in which the chorus just trot on about twice, sing a neat little song, and trot off again.) Perhaps the most "different" thing about this production for me was having only a single performance. We did four performances of Figaro, two in a small fullish hall in Godalming one weekend, then two in a large, almost empty, hall in Greenford. It may seem a pity for high level principals to sing to too small a crowd, but it's also a pity to get exactly one shot; this takes away the feeling of 'pace', somehow.

Although I took part in a concert performance of Carmen at school (the one with a happy ending!) and I've seen the opera a couple of times since, apart from all the lollipops I had to learn it more or less from scratch. But it's easy to see why Carmen is reputedly the most popular opera ever: it's extremely tuneful, and there are no "letter scenes" or other boring bits. Somehow one never finds oneself thinking "But why is he singing?" Mind you, in the end Don Jose is a bit dopey: if I had the chance of living happily ever after with Nagahama-san (oops, I mean Micaela), you wouldn't catch me lurking round any bull-fights.

Unfortunately I was unable to find anyone who watched the performance to write a review - I think it went off OK. I'll just give a special mention to Yamane-san, one of our voice trainers, for her sterling portrayal of the tramp in Act I. Clad in (and rendered invisible by) a sackcloth cloak left over from the previous years "Hansel and Gretel" (Humperdink), right up to the dress rehearsal she had been setting this off nicely with a rolled up yellow plastic umbrella, but disappointingly this turned into a proper stick for the performance.

Opera in translation

Almost all performances of the great operas are to an audience which largely doesn't speak the original language. Yet it's almost impossible to translate dialogue to fit the existing score. So what to do? In Japan Beethoven's Ninth is (as far as I know, universally) sung in the original German, and with the Sano chorus I've also sung the Mozart and Faure requiems in Latin, so there's no shortage of enthusiasm for foreign language singing. But an opera is a different matter, and crucially in Carmen there's spoken dialogue too. Even top-rank professionals can never really be totally successfully with dialogue in a language they don't actually speak, which is why Grace Bumbry as Carmen gets a stand-in on my recording. So we were singing in Japanese. Since my French is even worse than my Japanese that should have helped, but not quite, for some interesting reasons.

First the difficulties of translation are obvious. (Gosh, I translate boring technical manuals for a living, and that's hard enough.) In translating the text of an opera full of Catholic traditions and a Mediterranean notion of jealousy across cultures the problems are huge. If it can be done, it will certainly entail some slightly obscure vocabulary.

But then there's the difficulty peculiar to opera: somehow the translated words have to be fitted to the music. For a continuous aria or chorus there's enough leeway to manage this somehow: the problem comes where a character, or the chorus sing three notes to a three syllable word. Someone has to find three syllables in the new language that not only convey the same sentiment, but also have the stress in the right place. This can make difficulties enough just between French and English - I shall never forget a bit in the old English version of Carmen I had in a score long lost. Right at the end of the opera, Don Jose is in the final desperate throes of winding up to stabbing Carmen, while the off-stage chorus, supposedly from within the bull-ring, sing of Escamillo's victory. Well, the original words are "Victoire!" with, you'll spot, three syllables, the second stressed. Although it's extremely easy to translate as "Victory" in English, unfortunately this has the stress on the first syllable, and absolutely does not fit. The "solution" in this old version, was to write a girl's name instead - "Victoria!" (Huh?)

Singing in Japanese

[This half-begun section is the reason this page is six months late. Sorry: more research, and a proper version with examples from the score one day.]

But setting aside the translation issue for a moment, what of singing in Japanese? Compared with English or (horror of horrors) German, the phonetics of Japanese are much simpler: no consonant clusters, all open syllables, only five basic vowels. This sounds much more like Italian, and indeed at first sight it's all very straightforward.

The thing I find hardest to cope with, though, is the fact that Japanese has no stress accent whatsoever. This means that any particular word can happily appear with the musical bar-line divisions anywhere. It's impossible to lose the habit of feeling that there ought to be a fixed position for the accent. It makes the words harder to learn, too, I found. For example, in the smugglers' chorus (Act III) the word shigoto appears in different places with the accent on the first, second, and third beats.

Another minor difficulty is simply the syllabic 'n'. This sound just like the "ng" at the end of "song" in English, but the problem is that it's counted as a whole syllable, so occasionally will occur on its own on a note. It's impossible (obviously) to produce anything like the volume of singing a 'real' vowel, so this just leaves an odd gap. That's how it sounds to me, and native speakers agree that it is awkward.

The final problem is that, since there is no stress accent, there are (obviously) no unstressed syllables. This makes it in principle impossible to put anything on an unaccented lead-in note before the beginning of the bar. In particular, in French the smugglers' chorus at the beginning of Act III starts "Ecoute, ecoute..." (listen!) with the initial E-acute an unstressed semiquaver before the beat. OK, this translates directly as Kike-yo, kike-yo, but the first syllable just can't be left unstressed. So there's a tricky compromise, which I don't think I ever quite mastered, in which it seems that the rhythm is slightly delayed, so the first syllable arrives accented, almost on the beat, and immediately followed by the second syllable.

Marrying a Norwegian

"John wants to marry a Norwegian"

This is one of those standard sentences used in linguistics as an example of a particular ambiguity. And delightfully, this appears in the first act of Carmen, when Micaela makes her very first entrance, "I'm looking for a brigadier." Of course the chap on guard, Morales, says (sings) "Right, here I am, I'm a brigadier." To which Micaela has to make the obvious correction: "No, not just any brigadier, I'm looking for my brigadier, who's called Don Jose."

Department of minutiae
This appears to have been lost in both our Japanese version, and the English version in the Schirmer edition. It does seem that this is all explicit in the original:

Micaela: Moi, je cherche un brigadier.
Morales: Je suis là. Voilà!
Micaela: Mon brigadier, à moi, s'apelle Don José...

And the rest of this page? Well, shortly after the performance, on a mailing list to which I belong, someone, who for the purposes of anonymity we will call Henry Packingcase-Smith, posted yet another of his regurgitated quotations, which annoyed me, and which I counted at 138 lines. So I resolved to write 138 lines in response, without quoting from anywhere. And this is it...

.._.-.___.-oO(((((* B O O M *)))))Oo._ _ _ .oO(((( * B O O M * )))))Oo.

[Chorus of townsfolk, music teachers, and a few geeks, wander aimlessly,
yet somehow woodenly around the stage]

[Enter Aesphalius, wearing a Cambridge undergrad gown and a bicycle
Ae: What, Earthlings, how hie you here, hee hee?

Chorus (who sing only in Japanese): Kita-zou, kita-zou

Ae: You, Sir, who are you? What do you do?

Brahms op. 118: i am no sir, sir, i am a madam. but anyway, i'm no
longer married to wagner, and am brahms' opus 118.

Ae: Seems an odd name. Can anyone around here sing? (For example) Or
play the Rach 3?

Chorus: Are da! Are da! He can!

BEN HOLMES (a lieutenant in the Norwegian army): Oh, right. How boring.
Easier than the Schumann, anyway.

The chorus sing to the glory of tobacco, fortune-telling, blood-sports,
and religion. The words, having been translated, don't fit any more, and
can't be reproduced for copyright reasons.

[From stage right, enter John, a soprano. He confronts BEN HOLMES.]
John: Hola!

BEN HOLMES: Hola! What come you in search of, my good man?

John (with simplicity): Me, I'm looking for a Norwegian.

BEN HOLMES: That's me, I'm a Norwegian!

     John wants to marry a Norwegian,
     John wants to marry a Norwegian,
     Not a Spaniard nor a Dane,
     He has nearly gone insane,
     And joined the foreign legion,
     But he wants to marry a Norwegian.

John: No, no! Not _any_ Norwegian. (with feeling) My Norwegian is not
like you at all. He stands tall and proud, and doesn't even play the
piano. Actually he kills bulls for a living.

Bok-she (a Catholic priest): Shall I marry you now?

(  John:
(  BEN HOLMES:  We don't want to marry you - - !

( Sop&Ten: He doesn't want to marry you!
( Alt&Bas: He wants to marry a Norwegian!

John: All right, then, I'm off now. See you in Act 3, when my Norwegian
will come and sweep you off my feet.  [Exit]

BEN HOLMES: Back to the plot, then.

The chorus sing again of the glories of tobacco.

Bok-she: Empirical research suggests overwhelmingly that tobacco is bad
for the health.

Sopranos: Hey, but aren't the smoke-rings cute, pretty smoke rings,
pretty smoke rings, ...

George (a busy-looking passerby): Yes, and I can modulate through more
keys in a page...

Sopranos: Twining, twirling, swirling smoke rings

Bok-she: Shall I marry you then?

George: ... than there are Norwegians in Seville.

( Sopranos: Twirling, swirling, spluttering...
( Basses: Kita-zou, kita-zou!

ASM: Get that reverend off, Jim!

Tenors: She is here, the legend of a thousand topless ramen shops, our
Carmina. Give us a grin, or sin, a grin, or sin...

Carmina: Wotcha guys. Watch my eyes. Black ones.
(She continues with a long, and well-known tune, joined enthusiastically
by all on stage except Bok-she. This lasts well into Act 2, with a bit
of dancing thrown in. There is a general commotion, during which Bok-she
loses his place on the stage, and the conductor in the score. But
fortunately this was all planned.)

(Off-stage) Rat-a-tat-tat.

General Sir Henry Packingcase-Smith, First Lord of Her Majesty's
Norwegian Army, and High Prince of Tittibum, enters with some
considerable pomp.

Henry P-S: Ah! I am the very model of a modern majordomo man,
           I've mastered all the protocols, for joining and for posting
           The ins and outs and outs and ins of matters electronical,
           For posting long attachments, on some things quite diabolical.

Chorus:  For he's on a mailing list!
         He's on a mailing list!
         He's sure he won't be missed,
         He's on a mailing list.

Henry P-S: (Second verse, same as the first)

Enter John.

Chorus: Kita-zou, kita-zou.
        For he wants to marry ti-tum, titti-tum,
        Ne'er marry a Larry, nor even a Parry,
        For he wants to marry a Norwegian!

John and Henry embrace, momentarily.

Henry: Ah!
John (soprano, remember):  Aaaaaaaaaaah!

Chorus: Smoke rings in your eyes,
        Cough what a surprise,
        He's going to marry a Norwegian.

BEN HOLMES, Brahms op118, and George enter. They join John and Henry in
a patter song, in which it is clear that George is improvising. At the
end the chorus create some confusion, and John and Henry are forced
apart by Bok-She, who hesitantly chants...

Bok-She: This will not work, this will not work. There is no rational
basis for it. I will not marry this Norwegian.


Before the curtain rises for the fourth, final act, the ASM appears at
the edge of the proscenium, and explains that the third act, in which
the audience were to have been surprisoned and amazoned by a dramatic
device of some antiquity, is unfortunately not able to be presented,
because another theatre troupe has patented it.

Act IV: In a bullring
Chorus of bulls, many of which are obviously cross-dressed ladies, swirl

Chorus: Kita-zou! Kita-zou!

Enter Henry with Carmina on his arm.

Chorus: This isn't right, this isn't right!
        Why are they here, why are they here?
Sopranos: Shouldn't we be stage right?
Altos:  It has all gone wrong we fear!

Tenors: Ah, Carmina, we are the ones for you,
        You tell us your secrets, we tell you,
        We've skipped straight from Act Two.

Basses (ostinato): Nobody told me!

Carmina: Sorry, Henry, this is it!

(She plucks a fruit knife from her bosom, and stabs Henry, who falls

Chorus: Oh my, oh my, oh gosh!
        He shouldn't die, what bosh!

John enters, in obvious confusion. He is followed, in a square pattern,
by Brahms op118, BEN HOLMES, and Bok-She.

John:  Ahh, my Carmina, marry me.

Bok-She: He'll never marry a Norwegian.

( Brahms op118:
( BEN HOLMES:     Who won't marry a Norwegian?

Carmina (con amore: famous tenor aria): Ah, my little blue canary, thy
thousand ruffled feathers lie, so damp and dead, so stiff and cold, your
haunting fragrance lingers yet. In the darkness, as I lay dreaming, your
perfume, consolving, redeeming, recalled your image night and day, and
my despair would fade away.

Henry: Isn't that 138 lines yet?

Carmina: But where was I?

John:  Ah, Carmina!

Bok-She: More than 138, I make it!

Chorus: For he's going to cop it quite soon, quite soon;
        He's ummed and he's ahhed, and he's fluffled and flaffled,
        And now he's messed his lines up.

Carmina: Aaah! That's enough - 

George: But there was more - is this th'unkindest cut of all?

Carmina flashes her fruit knife again, and John faces her, brandishing a

( Carmina:  Ah!
( John (soprano, OK): Aaaaah!
( Bok-She: Hang on a minute...

.._.-.___.-oO(((((* B O O M *)))))Oo._ _ _ .-'''

There is an enormous bang, and the stage goes completely dark. Very,
very, slowly, pinkish lights come up as the smoke clears. In the very
middle of the stage can be seen a white grand piano, at which is seated
John Lennon. Chorus body parts are scattered around the piano. Lennon
plays the Readers Digest version of the Liszt B minor sonata. At the end
there is applause, and the curtain falls. On it is written a single



You've got to be joking! Any personalities who recognise themselves, will.
OK, one: Bok-She is me. I got allocated the role of a Catholic priest in the crowd scene in Act I. The Japanese for "Catholic priest" is shinpu, dammit - almost invariably, I was addressed as bokushi, which means "Protestant minister." (Extreme left in the top photo.)

Oh, and the ending is not entirely unrelated to my choice of "Imaginatorium" as a blinkered-empiricist protest against flim-flam, and the idea that flim-flam has anything to offer in the way of imagination.