Andrew Porter, who passed away last week at the age of 86, was the distinguished music critic at The New Yorker from 1972-1992. Alex Ross has a fascinating Postscript here.
I had but one personal encounter with the very friendly Porter, in 2000. It was a phone interview on the topic of his English-language translation of “The Magic Flute,” which Opera Pacific was about to perform at the time. Porter’s opera translations are the best I’ve encountered (I’ve heard several, including his Ring cycle). Here’s what he said, and I wrote, on the topic in 2000:
Largish bodies of water seem to have played an important part in Andrew Porter’s English translation of “The Magic Flute.”
“I sit in the bath thinking of each phrase,” says Porter, describing the process, “thinking about it always in the original language. And then trying to think what English words will make that particular phrase sound right musically.”
The former music critic of The New Yorker worked closely with the singers, too, such as his first Pamina. “We sat beside the pool in St. Louis and she would try this vowel and that vowel. And we found the one that worked.” It focuses the mind, water does.
Which is exactly what Porter needed to translate “Flute” into English. The task was painstaking and time consuming. Porter says that the “Flute” translation took him five years.
Still, and surprisingly, Porter is no staunch defender of opera in English at all costs. Though many, even most, of the great operas (all of Rossini, Verdi and Wagner, for instance) were created in the language of their first audiences, and communicated without the intervention of supertitles, Porter feels that translating them into English for English-speaking audiences doesn’t always make sense.
“It all depends on who the cast is, what the theater is, how many times they’re doing it, all those things,” says Porter. “So, if in Orange County you’ve got an English-speaking cast singing to an English-understanding audience, then I think it should be sung in English.” If you have a German-speaking cast, though, as often prevails at houses such as the Met, Porter thinks it’s best to sing “Flute” in the original German, no matter the audience.
His “Flute” translation, undertaken for Opera Theatre of St. Louis, was fashioned with the close collaboration of the singers. “I was there from the very first rehearsal to the first night and then through all the performances making changes.” The process involved not only matching the meaning of the German original, but also matching Mozart’s rhythms and finding English equivalents to the vowel and consonant sounds.
Porter demonstrates by singing the beginning of Tamino’s aria, “Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schoen,” in German. His English translation tried to match the phrase’s vowel lengths so that the singer’s voice would still wrap around the words in the way Mozart intended. His solution: “O vision of enchanting grace.”
The key is flexibility, says Porter – whatever works. If the original rhymes, Porter attempts to rhyme, but maybe not with the same frequency as the original. “And if the rhyme is forced and sounds absurd, then I would leave it out.”
When all is sung and done, though, Porter downplays his contribution, which he thinks of as neither creative nor especially scholarly. “My input is only to try and render what’s there,” he deadpans.
Then why do it?
“It’s a kind of love-of-Mozart undertaking, if you like.”