Northern Vowels, Classical Voices
In Victoria Wood’s recent play That Day We Sang there’s a memorable scene where the singing teacher takes the choir of young Manunicans to task for singing in ‘Lancastrian’ vowels. I remember similar experiences at school, and more recently when working with Saddleworth Male Voice choir on a radio drama where they were supposed to be a group of miners, I asked them to sing with Northern accents. The choirmaster, a Northerner himself, told me half-jokingly that I’d undone the work of 10 years in getting them to sing flat ‘a’s instead of Received Pronunciation vowels. So the absence of Northern English vowels is down to training – we simply have our accents trained out of our singing voices. But that still doesn’t explain why Northern English is so systematically banished from classical singing in English.
Over the last 9 months I’ve been working on a project to test the possibilities of opera singing in a recognisably Northern English accent. Ian McMillan and I have been planning an opera –called The Arsonists – in which the characters will have Barnsley accents. When I first thought about how I might do this, I listened to singers like Gracie Fields, who sometimes used her native Rochdale accent in her singing, but who also had at the top of her range had an impressive coloratura technique. Only the thing is, the Rochdale was all low down in her voice – in the part used for music hall and comic singing, while in the top of her range which was much more operatic her pronunciation went all Queen’s English. I tried without success to find examples of truly operatic voices singing in any Northern accent, and looked in vain for any reference to the accent in any singing manuals. Asking opera singers and teachers why this might be, I often got the response that Northern vowels were too ‘flat’, too short, or too unmusical.
At the start of the project I was beginning to get slightly down hearted – maybe it really wasn’t possible to sing opera in Northern accents. On the way to meet Ian in Huddersfield one day last summer, I happened to have been playing through Schumann’s song Thränenregen. Waiting at Marsden station in West Yorkshire, I asked a fellow passenger where I could buy tickets. His reply changed my whole attitude to the project. He said “On’ train”. It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said it -with that gloriously open monophthong vowel [ɛ], which is EXACTLY THE SAME VOWEL as the German ä in Thränenregen. Nobody would say that German vowels are too flat, or too short to sing, but this is exactly what happens when we educate junior school kids in Yorkshire out of singing “Away in a Manger” with their [ɛ] vowels. The same vowel in RP English “train” is also long, but is a dipthong, with a final [ɪ] tucked in just before the ‘n’. Other long monopthongs in some varieties of Northern English are the [ɔ] vowel in ‘coat’ (very close to German ‘o’ in ‘Boden’, but a little more open), and [ə] as in ‘Turning’, similar to Hungarian (long) ő. Normally classical singers in English make that ‘turn’ sound more like ‘tarn’. Yet if you did this in Hungarian the word would be unintelligible. Hungarian classical singers DO sing the [ə] vowel – spelt ‘ő’ – so we can see that in these three cases at least there’s no physical reason why more “Northern” sounding vowels can’t be sung in classical technique.
Over the next few days I’m going to post up some observations we’ve made over the course of the project. First though, I’ll describe how we went about the process. Ian McMillan and I agreed we’d try writing some songs together, and the first thing we did was record Ian speaking his own verse. We also worked closely with socio-linguist Philip Tipton, whose research specialism is the Lancastrian “square-nurse” vowel merger: in other words where the two words use the same vowel sound in the Bolton accents (think Maxine Peake and Peter Kay). Philip was able to forensically analyse the exact vowel being used at any point. Philip translated the texts in to IPA – the International Phonetic Alphabet – which I’ve already been using in this post. IPA only gives relative mouth positions for phonemes (the basic sounds making up speech), so the singer also referred to recordings made by Ian McMillan of his own song texts. Then we gave the songs in score to the singers, who learned the notes, and then honed the accent repeatedly under the guidance of myself, Philip and Ian. Finally we were able to end up with a sung aria in which – we think – Ian’s Barnsley accent is clear and comes out in the singing.
In order to do this, we had to throw the classical English singing rule book out of the window. Often, we had no idea how to make a particular sound, and there was no expert to refer to. Sometimes we found that it just wasn’t possible to make a clear Northern English vowel at particular points in the music, and sometimes we found that we had to fake it to make something that would be perceived as Northern, even though the vowel sound actually being sung was not one used in ordinary speech, and sometimes the music demanded that we didn’t follow exactly the way that Ian had read his own texts. I’ll be putting up videos of the process and the final showcase which took place in Salford’s Peel Hall, so you’ll have the opportunity to let me now if you think we’ve succeeded or not. In the meantime, I’m going to make some individual observations on the process in my next post.