Lwow: a night at the opera 4


There was some quite decent singing in the second act and what I really liked was the simplicity of the production. No director trying to be clever, just bring them on, do the stuff and go. The tenor was almost very good but his habit of mispronouncing Italian got on my nerves. One particular and often repeated mistake was kvando instead of quando. This is such an ugly sound for which I blame the Germans and their Latin pronunciation. Why the Ukrainians have applied it to Italian beats me.


In their pronunciation of Latin the Poles like to germanise everything. Thus, qui becomes Kvee which is ugly, and wrong in Italian and English Latin, though try telling them. Latin, not Italian which should be pronounced properly, was a lingua franca and regional differences of pronunciation were and are to be expected and respected.


When I first started the choir in Warsaw almost ten years ago, a member complained to an “expert” about my wrong pronunciation of Latin when we were rehearsing Vivaldi’s Gloria. Wrong meaning that I insisted on Italianate pronunciation. All hell broke loose. I received an irate letter from this expert stating I was both ignorant and ill mannered. There is only one way of pronouncing Latin, the Polish way, or the German way, which seem to be the same. It became a divisive issue. To prove his point, so he thought, he demanded that I listen to an eminent East German choir singing Italian music. This, apparently, confirmed that only the Polish/German style of pronunciation was universal and acceptable. He refused even to contemplate that Italian Latin might play by different rules. He refused to accept that a German choir might be wrong. This was my first heated encounter with Polish logic.


To see the absurdity of this argument consider how English is used today by mother tongue speakers across the world: the United Kingdom, Canada and the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to say nothing of the other parts of the world where English shares first place with a native language. There are vast differences in pronunciation and all of them correct, albeit some less pleasant to the ear than others.


Today we have the added advantage of wireless, television and media which diffuse language as never before. In the 17th century there was no means of standardising Latin pronunciation nor any other pronunciation. It took the Italians until 1841 and the publication of “I Promessi Sposi” even to begin to work out what their language was, let alone how to pronounce it. Thus with Latin, though not, Lwowian singers might like to note, with 19th century operatic Italian. The rules are quite clear.

The act ended and immediately I got into conversation with the young couple. I asked how the man had leant to speak English so well.

“In the seminary. I am a Protestant,” he added quickly, almost as if I might get the wrong impression of him otherwise.

My heart rose. “So am I!” and we shook hands. “I am an Anglican.”


“I am a Baptist!”


A Baptist? Gosh, are they Protestants? Of course they are.  I remembered one day at church in Warsaw, Victor Ashe, a regular worshipper and the American ambassador, confided to me that he was really a Baptist. The same thought went through my head then. A Baptist?

Where I come from Baptists are regarded as poor cousins, though cousins they are, nonetheless.


“So, you are a priest?”


“No, I didn’t finish but I stayed long enough to learn English. Now I am a carpenter. I make furniture.”


“You make it or you stick it together?”


“We make it. We can make anything.”


“How wonderful. I should love to do that or at least to know how to be able to. Jesus was a carpenter,” I added, to establish my credentials.


I told him how I used to have carpentry lessons at prep-school when I was 10.  Mr. King, who had lost his forefinger to a wayward chisel, would come every Tuesday and teach us all the basic rules. Then we would put them into use making egg stands, book cases, wooden brief cases, all the sorts of things that you can now buy at IKEA. I cant remember my mother ever leaping for joy when I brought my offerings home, which was probably why I never put my heart into my carpentry. I wonder if other mothers were different. I suspect not. Mind you, I don’t think my mother ever bought anything at IKEA. She was not one for the basics.


Having established this happy common ground with my neighbours, perhaps the Poles could learn a lesson, the small girl reappeared. She looked as if she was going to stay for the act. Now was the time for action.


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