Monday, 11 April 2011

La Pronunciation Française

I went on another singing workshop this weekend. I'd chosen ”La fleur que tu m’avais jetée” as one of the three pieces that I'd prepared, the other two, "Voi che sapete" and "Una furtiva lagrima", being in Italian. I'd told the teacher what I'd chosen and on the way to the venue on Saturday she recommended that I listen to the version of "La fleur" by Jonas Kaufmann, who was for her the best Don José.

At the workshop everybody sings in foreign languages and not many of the songs are in French. I suppose I was foolish to offer such a well known French aria from Bizet’s Carmen. But I do like singing it because, once you have transposed it down, it’s not too difficult and yet it’s full of drama and changes of mood.

The teacher didn’t like my French pronunciation. She is usually very tolerant of the singers’ various shortcomings and politely suggests areas they need to improve, but not in this case. First she paid me a strongly backhanded compliment by saying that at my level of musicianship my pronunciation of French is not good enough and I would do better singing in English or Italian! Next, in front of the group, she started to give me a lesson in how to pronounce French! Well I suppose that does mean that she thinks I'm musically adept, even if my French is sub-standard, but whilst she's happy to let English songs be sung with faulty pronunciation that is clearly totally unacceptable in French.

After learning French at school, I took it up again at the age of 40 and that is too late to learn to speak a language perfectly. After arriving in France, six years ago, it took about two years before I was confident enough to have an extended conversation with someone in French. I am frequently frustrated by not being able to find the right words and I know that I make lots of mistakes. Most people are too polite to point these out.

On Sunday morning I woke up at 4.30am and couldn’t get back to sleep for thinking about it all. So I decided to check on the pronunciation of some world famous tenors.

Jonas Kaufmann consistently makes a serious mistake by pronouncing the é as an i “(the difference, if you are an English speaker between ay and ee). For example “jetée at 7s”, “restée at 16s”, “flétrie 19s”. This is completely incorrect and, if you know French, gives rather comical results as you can hear in the video. It’s amazing that nobody has corrected him.

Domingo quite incredibly shares the same fault at 26s and 33s. Perhaps they both had the same non-French teacher. He also mispronounces “heur-es” as ér-es (err-ez not air-ez in English) at 56s.

Pavarotti not surprisingly has a strong Italian accent and at 1m 25s he mispronounces je with the italian vowel sound as j’ai.

Jose Carreras strongly rolls his r’s like a Spanish speaker normally would, e.g.”gardait at 53s.

So I feel that, amongst these great tenors, I am in very exalted company indeed!

Roberto Alagna is authentically French and, although he has an Italian name, he was born in Clichy-Sous-Bois. His is my performance of reference.

When the members of the group sing in English there are sometimes major mistakes as well as minor mispronunciations or lack of correct articulation. During these workshops I have restricted myself to only correcting serious errors and not even all of those. This weekend I briefly intervened twice in total.

During Sunday’s session I didn’t feel inclined to sing”La Fleur” again. After the fifth or sixth time, I also got very tired of joking remarks about “the English” from one of the older members of the class. Finally, when the teacher pointed out one of my mispronunciations in spoken French to the rest of the group, and later jokingly suggested that one of the ladies should sing "Voi che sapete" with an English accent, I got really pissed off. She, of course, sang it in the way that she had been taught. I listened very attentively and couldn't hear any difference between her pronunciation of Italian and mine. When she had finished I couldn’t resist congratulating her on her very correct English pronunciation of Italian. I am not sure whether anyone fully understood the point of my remark but maybe one or two did!

I am quite slow to react emotionally, which explains why it was only in the evening, as I reflected on the day, that I became very angry indeed. The teacher should never have undermined my confidence in the first place and she should most definitely not have made jokes about my pronunciation of French on Sunday. For the first time, in six years of living in France, I was made to feel ashamed of my French and I felt that I was not a full member of the group because I am English.

The teacher has certainly taught me things about vocal technique but if, and there is a serious doubt in my mind, I continue with her in the future I will never sing songs in French!

The teacher, by the way, is German.


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