A Singer’s Guide to Fake Russian

As a professional singer, you are called to sing in many languages, including some in which you are not fluent. This can be a challenge at first, until you realize that most languages are basically the same and English is the connecting thread for almost all of them. The English language is a living, evolving portmanteau of any other dialect it encounters. Singing in Italian is easy if you have ever eaten pizza or worn stilettos. Singing in French, well, c’est la vie. And German is as easy as Kindergarten. The big exception, as you know if you have ever encountered this beast of a language in recital, is Russian.

I have personally sung in English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Latin, Czech, Portuguese, Swahili, Xhosa, Tamil, Greek, Hebrew, Swedish, Finnish, and possibly more that I can no longer remember, but Russian has always been the one that my brain cannot process. With all the others there is a tipping point at which my mind will suddenly start taking in the foreign sounds as perfectly natural and memorizable and pronounceable. Not so with Russian. Even when written out phonetically the sounds just sit oddly on my tongue. It is a perfectly fine language, but it just seems a little more foreign than its closest neighbors. So what to do when you must perform in Russian? The only answer, obviously, is to fake it.

The first thing I ever tried to memorize in Russian was Lensky’s aria from Tchaikovsky’s masterful opera Eugene Onegin. This was back in grad school and I was to present it as part of my voice juries. If you are not familiar with the concept of voice juries, this means that my grade was dependent on it. I tried so hard, perhaps harder than I have ever tried to memorize anything in my life, but the words just would not stick. I could have hummed the whole damn thing quite excellently, but sadly I was not getting a master’s degree in humming. What was I going to do? I spent a whole semester slamming my voice into a brick wall and coming up empty. And that was the moment when my genius voice teacher, Lancelot Fruit, gave me the best singing advice anyone has ever given me.

“Well, erh, uh, you know…nobody on dat jury also will speak Russian. As long as it sound like Russian, whell, erh, you get my meaning?”

Lancelot was from Switzerland, where they apparently play fast and loose with voice jury rules. So a week before my jury I gave up on memorizing and we started practicing Russian gibberish. I may be terrible at Russian, but I am excellent at making up B.S. on the fly. This was where I truly started to excel.

Kuda, kuda, kuda da tvoy yot nyem lyoo
kuda ma prost da duh tvoy blagiy
Nyet prav kuda svlot dee-lee
Pridi ya tvoy ya ya!

I mean, I could remember snippets of text, just not in the right order, and with no meaning attached to them in my brain. But nobody on the jury spoke Russian. As long as I sounded convincing, there was a chance I might just pull it off! I practiced in front of my friends, and they gave me tips as to which made-up syllables sounded less Russiany, and on the day of the jury I walked on stage confidently terrified that my life was over.

They never asked for that piece. I brought 5 selections, they heard 3, and Kuda, Kuda wasn’t one of them. I vowed that day to never sing Russian again. It wasn’t that I couldn’t eventually get it, it was more that you couldn’t pay me enough money to go through that again. Taking a gig in Russian was going to mean 5 times the prep work compared to a gig in Italian. Not worth it. I have to consider my time and effort, no? And so I happily went about my non-Russian business, only enjoying the listening-to of Russian music and not the singing-of.

10 days ago I performed the Rachmaninoff Vespers in Russian. I did not have to memorize it. It was the first thing I had sung in Russian since the day of my voice jury. I screwed up the words. I made something up. And nobody noticed. (Except the conductor, who was all aboard the “nobody speaks Russian, make it up” train)

So singers, take note and take heart, singing in Russian is possible. No, singing correctly in Russian may not be possible for all singers, but the best part of singing in the more obscure languages is that nobody else knows how it goes either. Good luck, and Udachi Nizhneye Bel’ye Pryazhka!

Posted in Grad School, Language, Music, Opera, Russian, Singing, Tenor Tuesday.

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