Monday, April 26, 2010

Are you a lyrics person?

Once upon a time I imagined everybody paid attention to song lyrics. I remember when the truth dawned on me as if it were yesterday: not everyone finds the words at least as important to the success and significance of a song as the melody, rhythm, vocals, and instrumentation.

I was reminded of awakening to this fact when ushering the World Premiere of Girlfriend at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre this weekend. The song through which I discovered the seamy truth about this variety of human experience was playing on the sound system in the lobby, and I said something about its lyrics to a fellow usher. As Kurt Cobain's recorded voice spun out the lyrics to "All Apologies" my friend turned to me with a puzzled look.


I was driving with another friend, whom I've known for more decades than either of us care to admit, up into the Sierras. This was some years back. We were talking about the few positive references to gay people and culture in popular music -- fewer and further between even than one finds nowadays. I mentioned Nirvana's "All Apologies." My old friend took his eyes off the road to look at me like I was a lunatic. "What are you talking about?" he wanted to know. I dug my heels in, certain the song contains the lines, "What else should I say? / Everyone is gay." My friend is deeply into popular music, and he'd listened to more than his share of Nirvana. Moreover, he isn't a person who can be credibly accused of wearing homophobic screening filters: he's gay himself, comfortable about it, out, a resident of San Francisco. Yet he flat out refused to believe I'd heard the lyrics right. "There is no chance," he insisted, "that Nirvana sings 'Everyone is gay' on pop radio." We were staying near Lake Tahoe in a cabin that had a CD player and a decent collection of discs, so when we arrived we were able to settle the matter. We played a recording of the song, and ... lo and behold.

Some people hear the lyrics to a song. Some people don't. Kind of like Almond Joy and Mounds, right? Except it doesn't seem to be a thing you feel like or not, it's just built-in.

Here's another angle on the question.

Early in our relationship, my partner began dragging me along to opera performances. I'd never been interested in opera before we started going out, and it was a pretty painful introduction. Why? Because I'm a lyrics person, and most opera librettos are ridiculous. This was no fault of our local opera company, which ranks among the finest. San Francisco Opera stages terrific productions, its orchestra shines, the company recruits brilliant singers and top conductors to nearly every production. But I had a really hard time seeing and hearing all that. Why? Because my attention was glued to the supertitles projected onto screens mounted to the sides of the stage, the ones that translated the libretto being sung in German, Italian, French, or Russian.

The fact that opera libretti -- as drama -- are by-and-large ridiculous is widely, if not unanimously, accepted. There's a reason this is known and forgiven, of course, and that reason is that in the operatic arts libretti aren't the point. The music is the point. The drama in an opera is revealed by the score and by the dramatic interpretation given by the vocalists. The libretto, if you'll allow me to exaggerate a bit, is merely something to sing. A series of signposts. Of stage directions to the singers, conductor, and director. Well, I didn't get it, not for the longest time. I'm a lifelong fiction reader. I listen to song lyrics. So when I went to the opera I paid close attention to which words the singers were singing.

What finally opened my ears was a production of Bellini's La Sonnambula. We'd just arrived in Vienna on the train, and were staying in a small hotel near the Wiener Staatsoper. There were standing room tickets to that evening's performance available, in which Juan Diego Flores and Natalie Dessay would sing (in the event, Dessay canceled). We bought tickets, got a bite of dinner, and showed up in time to take our places. The production was modern and a bit silly, but the tenor was incandescent. And from where we stood there were no supertitles to be seen. In Vienna's opera house, screens are built into the seat backs, like in newer airplanes. You choose a language for the translation if you've got a screen, but where the standing audience was squeezed in, at the back of the hall's main floor, that wasn't an option. My Italian is pretty primitive so I could only watch the performers and listen, senza capire (i.e., without understanding).

That's when I got it. I've paid a lot less attention to libretti ever since, and enjoyed opera a lot more.

But. My transformative experience in Vienna didn't change the existential facts of my life. I'm still a lyrics person.

What about you? Do you think a song's words matter?


  1. This is a very interesting posting. I don't hear lyrics much - particularly rock and pop songs. In the classical field, I pay close attention to the words in Lieder, such as those by Schubert.

    As for opera, it depends. It is true that many operas have convoluted plots and can be laughable when read it through without the aid of music. But many times, a great score can lift the whole piece up and give it a status the lyrics alone would never attain. A good example is Verdi's Il Trovatore. The story is a bit tortured if not downright impossible. But the music was so sublime that one don't need to understand the any single words. You follow the emotions emitted by the sound and you understand it all.

    Some great operas have great libretti, such as those by Mozart-Da Ponte (Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte), Verdi-Boito (Simon Boccanegra, Otello, Falstaff) and Strauss-Hoffmansthal (Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Arabella).

    Some operas are based on the straight play, such as Salome, Elektra, Wozzeck, Pelléas et Mélisande. They made great straight theater. Another great French opera is Dialogues des carmélites, whose dialogues are largely set in recitative, with a melodic line that closely follows the text. In this aspect, French operas are the best.

    The very last opera by my favorite opera composer Richard Strauss, Capriccio, was a debate on the virtue of words and music. It has a great story but then what affected me most was its absolutely ravishing music.

    A good read on the subject of libretti can be found online The Right Words by John Simon. He listed his favorite libretti (must be written as libretti originally) and the list include:

    Bluebeard's Castle (Bartok)

    Death in Venice (Britten)

    The Cunning Little Vixen (Janáček)
    Una Voce in "Off" (Montsalvatge)

    The Fiery Angel (Prokofiev)

    L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (Ravel)

    The Florentine Straw Hat (Rota)

    Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (Shostakovic)

    Ariadne auf Naxos (Strauss)

    The Rake's Progress (Stravinsky)

    Troilus and Cressida (Walton)

    The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (Weill)

    Again, I listed the composers not the librettists.

    But a terrible libretto can ruin a great musical composition. I was terribly bored at John Adams's "Doctor Atomic", based on Peter Sellar's libretto. I also decided to skip Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, featuring great Deborah Voigt in the role debut. I don't have stomach for a spaghetti western on opera stage.

    Matthew Felix Sun

  2. I always hear the lyrics, sometimes too much. Currently I'm worked up about "tic tock" by Ke$ha, and how she says she's "gonna fight" until daylight. Since when is staying up drinking and hooking up a sign of rebellion? Something that's a "fight?"

  3. @Matthew: You humble me in every operatic respect.

    @Steven: I'm old enough to have no idea who Ke$ha is, and to have no regrets about that particular ignorance. I have to say, though, judging a book by the writing on its cover, as it were, that "staying up drinking and hooking up" might be sold as a cheap and pathetic proxy for rebellion by someone shilling for the forces of commodity fetishism, a possibility that's easy to imagine when we're talking about a performer with a dollar sign in her name.

  4. BTW, the article Matthew mentioned is The Right Words by John Simon in Opera News.

  5. I saw La Sonnambula last night at the Island City Opera in Alameda. The simplicity of this story allowed me to feel deeply moved. Seeing other operas I have had to work harder reading lyrics just to stay in the flow of the story. Last night the lyrics offered just enough information for my brain to relax and let go. Once my thinking had settled down the music's story completely opened my heart.