Diction from the conductor’s perspective: views from Matthew Kofi Waldren
We talk to acclaimed opera and orchestral conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren about the importance of good diction in opera.
As a conductor, how does a knowledge of correct diction affect what you do?
Text, for an opera conductor, is key. It is the element that conductors don’t have at their disposal in the symphonic repertoire, and in opera text can unlock everything. It necessarily provides narrative, and also the psychological intent of the characters. And, it is the reason a composer might choose a particular orchestration, articulation and harmony.
Knowledge of the language of the opera you are working on is vital, as are the sounds of that language and how those sounds are formed. The physical formation of the sounds of the language and how they are delivered have a huge impact on rhythm, cross-rhythm, and articulation. Correct use of diction is fundamental to guiding the music, guiding the singer’s phrasing and helping the singer be proactive in showing the conductor where they are heading.
Can you give some examples of this from Italian repertoire you’ve worked on?
There are so many examples! Italian opera composers knew exactly what they were doing with text; they understood how it was formed, the rhythms of the text, and how it should be sung.
There are countless examples of l’accent d’insistance, for example, where the composer clearly wants the text rhythm to play against the dominant musical rhythm, to create intricate cross rhythms. Try making the conversational beginning to Puccini’s La rondine work without the accent d’insistance and you’re doomed to failure! The bar lines would be far too much in evidence and you would kill the music!
There are simple yet detailed examples of rhythm, too. Looking at Mozart’s autograph scores, we can see the speed at which he wrote, and can surmise that he wanted final crotchets to be short – he just didn’t write them as a quaver followed by a quaver rest as it would have taken longer to write. The written note values are not always verbatim; they are a guide. The composer knew that some things make sense musically and don’t need to be spelled out.
The same happens with text. There are many examples in Mozart operas of the orchestra having dotted figures while the singers are seemingly set against them without dots. But, when we look at the text, the correct use of the diction means that those seemingly undotted figures for the singer must be sung inégales (near enough dotted). If Mozart had written the figure as dotted for the singers, this would have become over-dotted with the correct Italian diction in place (as he would have expected). So, he wrote an undotted figure, assuming that the correct use of text and diction would make it sound naturally dotted, thereby aligning with the orchestral dotted figure.
Puccini, on the other hand, notates every dash of articulation, every detailed dynamic change, every tempo change (he has a wonderful array of descriptions telling us to slow down!) Sometimes, though, a simple ritenuto should be viewed as a reminder rather than a command. If you look at the text, there would be no way of singing it with the correct diction without slowing. Puccini writes these indications as a reminder that the text needs attention. If we impose a ritenuto on top of the time needed for the text, we can find that the music becomes overly indulgent – not something of which Puccini himself was a fan.
Correct use of diction is fundamental to guiding the music, guiding the singer’s phrasing and helping the singer be proactive in showing the conductor where they are heading.
Which aspects of Italian diction are most important for you as a conductor?
I am very clear that the text is our primary job in opera, so all aspects of diction are incredibly important. But the correct use of long consonants and the accent d’insistance are particularly important to me in Italian.
In your experience, what are the aspects of Italian diction that singers most need to focus on?
One of the reasons that my answer to the previous question focused on long consonants and the accent d’insistance is that these are the aspects of singing in Italian that often get overlooked by singers in the quest to achieve legato and line. However, we can maintain connection to the breath and actually find it easier to sing when we really employ these techniques. Not only that, but with clear and correct articulation, the music comes to life and the audience comprehends the text. In singing any language, line and legato do not mean the absence of text. Singers often focus on vowels, specific vowel choice and vowel modification. While these are important, my job is often to introduce the proper use of consonants, and earlier onset of long consonants to aid the vocal line, helping us to bring the composer’s intentions to life, and actually make it all easier to sing!
Photo credits: Dave Myers (header image) and Robert Workman (image in article)