On accents in opera

Generally speaking , as far as I can tell, opera is sung as far as possible without a particular class or regional accent.  Each language has a well understood sung form that isn’t exactly like RP speech but is clearly close to it.  I know that there are a few Italian works where a comprimario role takes a Sicilian accent and Baron Ochs in Rosenkavalier is supposed to be comically rural but these are minor exceptions for effect.  Why then the tendency for modern works in English to require exaggerated accents?  And why is it so uneven?  Nobody expects the characters in Peter Grimes or Albert Herring to sing with Suffolk accents but apparently Anna Nicole requires singers to do a really bad fake Texas accent and A Streetcar Named Desire seems to be thought to require a similar treatment.

Does the same thing happen with modern operas in other languages and does anybody have any explanation for why it’s suddenly crept into the English language repertoire?  The only explanation I can offer for Anna Nicole is that it’s part of a whole cultural appropriation/condescension thing that is going on in that work that I find quite intolerable.

5 thoughts on “On accents in opera

  1. I know, I can’t bring myself to watch Anna Nicole for that very reason. Glad I’m not alone in finding the whole thing condescending, given the great praise for the opera. Maybe Nico Muhly will strike back with Two Boys (jk).

    • It just seems like a very cheap shot for the Royal Opera House to be parodying working class Americans. If they wanted to send up worthless celebrities they’ve got a few much closer to home at Buck House.

    • I don’t think it’s a question of who is singing. No doubt Jay Hunter Morris could sing with a Texas accent but he doesn’t when he’s singing Siegfried. So I come back to the original question; why do characters in Anna Nicole sing with a non-standard accent? It’s not the normal operatic convention. I have to assume it’s because the audience, well off Brits for the most part, find working class southerners intrinsically funny. I find that offensive. It’s like giving a black character an aria about water melons.

      • True. The implication of having them sing with that accent seems to be that the characters are only interesting or important if they are in this category of ‘weird trashy Southerners’ – it’s that rather than who they are as people which is the draw. Which is definitely pretty offensive.

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