Accessibility links


Sign In
  • Home
  • News
  • Some things are better left unsung: Why composers use speech in opera

Some things are better left unsung: Why composers use speech in opera

Composers have long explored the gamut of vocal expression from a whisper to a scream.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

2 November 2015 at 2.01pm | 1 Comment

In opera, people sing: that’s what makes it opera. Or does it? Throughout the history of the art form composers have experimented with a wide range of vocal expression: singing, speaking, shouting, whispering, screaming and everything in between. Speech is structurally crucial in Georg Friedrich Haas’s new opera, Morgen und Abend – making this premiere part of a legacy that stretches back centuries.

Speech is at the heart of the operatic repertory. Two of the most popular works in the history of opera make extensive use of spoken dialogue. Mozart’s Viennese Singspiel Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and Bizet’s French opéra comique Carmen each balance musical numbers with extensive passages of spoken text, true to the genres in which they were written. Both the Singspiel and the opéra comique had their roots in local popular theatre; their use of vernacular language and spoken text meant that for a period of time they enjoyed support as accessible alternatives to ‘serious’ operas, which were usually in Italian. In Die Zauberflöte, the use of spoken text is a part of this populist identity.

Carmen, on the other hand, is almost on the edge of anachronism in its use of dialogue. By the time Bizet composed the work, the opéra comique had become codified in its own right as a hugely popular operatic genre, and many composers working in the genre veered away from the traditional use of spoken dialogue. But Bizet obviously enjoyed experimenting with the many levels of the human voice – in Carmen he uses unaccompanied dialogue, dialogue spoken over the orchestra (called ‘melodrama’), recitative (speech-like singing) and operatic song, all carefully deployed to give each utterance a precise and distinctive meaning.

Other composers experimented with spoken text throughout the 19th century, from Beethoven’s chilling use of melodrama in Fidelio, as Leonora first sees her husband’s prison, to the dramatic recitation Cilea gave to his doomed actress Adriana Lecouvreur. Experiments by Humperdinck in his Königskinder at the turn of the 20th century led to the development of a new kind of vocal expression: Sprechstimme (‘speech-song’). This musical speech, where the composer specifies the pitch at which sounds should be spoken, possibly originally notated a kind of performance style in popular song. It soon developed into a rich musical tool, as Schoenberg and his pupils experimented with ways to use this musical speech – such as the sing-song horror of Berg’s Wozzeck as he descends into despair.

Composers continued to find innovative uses for spoken text throughout the 20th century – as an anti-opera statement (Brecht and Weill’s Mahagonny); as exuberant, genre-smashing display (Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre); as a new language of rhythm (Reich’s Three Tales); and as aural collage (Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives). Britten also made much use of speech, both in genre works, such as his realization of the 18th-century ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera and his operetta Paul Bunyan, and in his operas, often in passages of bleak momentousness – when Balstrode tells Peter Grimes to sail his ship out to sea; when Elizabeth passes from life into death in Gloriana.

Speech is used to denote a similar transition in Morgen und Abend – although, characteristically for Haas, now viewed from the other side. He uses song only for characters in states of transition: those who are being born, or those who are dying. Olai, a father awaiting the birth of his son, is the only character who does not sing. Haas has stipulated that the opera’s dialogue is always spoken in the vernacular of the country where the opera is performed, while the lyrical, text-led musical setting is sung in his native German – we are on the same plane as Olai, while the other characters are at a remove from us.

Far from a curio, speech in its many forms is a powerful tool in opera. The rich array of vocal effects will only expand as composers continue to experiment with that most varied of instruments, the human voice.


Die Zauberflöte runs 12 September–14 October 2017. Tickets are still available.

This article has 1 comment

  1. John Cooper responded on 25 August 2016 at 12:33am Reply

    Rather than explaining (as billed) WHY speech is used, it rather tells us that it IS used. Oh, well.

Comment on this article

Your email will not be published

Website URL is optional