Alan Edward Williams

Composer/ cyfansoddwr

Five Things I learned about writing opera in a Northern accent

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Northern Vowels, Classical Voices 2

Five Things I learned about writing opera in a Northern accent

  1. It’s as much about the composer as the singer. You can only get a Northern accent to be perceived by the listener if the difference between long vowels and short vowels is reflected in the music. In the Song Like me Dad , for example, when I first got the text I hadn’t heard Ian reading it, so the phrase “right aht o’ window” I set with a longish note on the final vowel of “window”. In Manchester, where I grew up, we tended to say the second vowel of window as a dipthong [ou], and hence, relatively long. Ian, with his Barnsley accent says something more like “wind-er”, with a short vowel at the end. So the minim became a quaver to go with the vowel.
  2. You have to throw the classical singing rule book out of the …erm…wind-er. In one of the songs, the singer, Zoe Milton Brown, had to sing “I would stand”, and I had set “stand” to a long note. But even in conventional English, the vowel being sung wouldn’t be the one in conventional speech. RP English in speech would have the vowel as [æ], but lengthening the vowel would tend to make the vowel a long [ɑ] sound. The Northern “stand” uses the same [ɑ] vowel as classical singing technique, so we couldn’t make enough of a distinction when the vowel was short. Our solution was to lengthen the “n” on “stand”, leaving the short [ɑ] typical of Northern speech. This is all counter to the singingtextbooks, which emphasise the need for open vowels (again, something which is trained into choirs at an early age). We don’t know how this will carry over an orchestra, but it certainly carries over the piano.
  3. There’s no such thing as an ugly vowel. If it’s intelligible, it makes sense. In many cases, the vowel sound most felt to verge on the ‘ugly’ was the wide Northern [a] (as in Mancunian “car”, or South Yorkshire “aht” (for “out”). In conventional English singing technique this is modified to [ɑ] as it would be in RP English (southern “bath”), and even in Italian singing, singers are careful with this vowel, softening the extreme [a] of many Italian accents. But we needed it, and after a while it started to seem like a normal part of singing. The perception of “ugliness” may be international – listen to Adrienne Csengery sing the first word – “kásásodik” – of Kurtág’s Attila József Fragments and nuance it so that the “á”-[a] – sound becomes something a little more like the [ɑ], but it’s still only a perception. If the singer is telling the truth about the character, it can’t be ‘ugly’.
  4. The Northern (especially) “ t’” is never sung! There’s a common misperception that the Yorkshire definite article as in “going dahn to t’ shops” is some kind of “t”. It’s not – it’s a glottal stop. It became confusing because there’s a convention that you write the missing word with a “t’”. But when you do this in scores, because the singers are trained to read and pronounce everything, you get the temptation – even fro Northern based singers – to say it as a “t”. So we stopped writing it as a ‘t”, and just used the apostrophe instead.
  5. Dipthongs can also disobey the rules. The normal rule in singing English is that the second vowel in a dipthong is tucked away right at the end of the note. Mostly we also followed this rule, especially on melismas (lots of notes to one vowel). But there were occasions when we emphasized the northern-ness of the accent by relaxing this rule, such as the line “Tricky those dicky-bows to tie”. The second vowel in the dipthong in “tie” became slightly elongated, partly because we wanted to emphasise the restriction of the singer’s throat casued by the tie.

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