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This article is taken from PN Review 43, Volume 11 Number 5, May - June 1985.

On Translatiang Opera Anne Ridler
adapted from a broadcast talk

Opera grows from the seed of the word. Renaissance theorists were in no doubt about that, and they based their arguments on Plato, who in the Republic says that song consists of word, harmony and rhythm, and that of these three. Word is the leader. Monteverdi, the greatest of early opera composers, found it so necessary to have words that inspired him, that he objected to a libretto which used winds as characters, writing to his patron: 'How, dear sir, since winds do not speak, shall I be able to imitate their speech? And how, by such means, shall I be able to move the passions?'

Nowadays, however, music has become so much the dominant partner, that we are tempted to think of the libretto as more or less a necessary evil, and the plot a tiresome device that gets in the way of our enjoyment of the music. Even by the end of the seventeenth century, audiences were treating the recitatives as a background for talk or a game of draughts; and it is true that many of the great composers seem to have succeeded in spite of, rather than by means of, their collaborators. There is a curious paradox here: the words are nothing without the music (and the subtler the poetry, the more surely its own verbal music is destroyed by the setting, disappearing like a pattern drawn in sand when water flows over it), yet the music must ...


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