On recent Tortoise Tuesdays, Isabella, Ellie, and Paige have all analyzed music or musical theater in terms of the writing lexicon. Writing about music is, of course, a discipline in its own right – and often one that requires special attention to orienting, key terms, and other lexicon items to ensure that the writing is clear to readers who may not have extensive prior knowledge. Zachary Woolfe’s recent New York Times article on the opera singer Anita Rachvelishvili masterfully combines technical insights with explanations and examples, demonstrating how good writing can make any topic accessible to a non-expert audience.
Woolfe starts with a specific example: a recent rehearsal of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur. He gives the background information necessary for any reader to make sense of his description and then transitions smoothly to the real focus of the article: Rachvelishvili herself.
“Late in the third act of “Adriana Lecouvreur,” Francesco Cilea’s irresistible potboiler of an opera, the vicious Princesse de Bouillon and Adriana, an actress, square off at a party, rivals for the love of the dashing Maurizio.
In the tumult, Maurizio makes a move toward Adriana, but the princess stops him. “Restate,” she commands, ordering him to stay by her.
On a recent morning deep within the Metropolitan Opera, where a new production of “Adriana” starring Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczala opens on New Year’s Eve, the Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili made the three syllables of “restate” a paradox: a gorgeous snarl.
Diving into her chest voice, but not milking it or pushing too hard, her tone stayed round, warm and not all that loud, an iron fist in a cashmere glove. Listening, you felt like Maurizio, pinned to your seat by her sound and authority.”
Throughout the article, Woolfe continues to provide the information necessary to make it comprehensible, defining key terms as they come up. He avoids doing so in a cumbersome, didactic way, instead providing explanations as necessary. For example, in the introduction, Woolfe chooses not to give a direct translation of Rachvelishvili’s line “Restate” (“stay”), instead describing what her character is doing with that command.
When writing in a specialized discipline, especially one that, like opera, already is perceived as unwelcoming to casual participants, it can be hard to find a balance between providing not enough information or too much. Students are sometimes unsure whether to include a dedicated “key words” section at the beginning of a paper, at the risk of overwhelming the reader or causing confusion if some terms don’t reappear until much later in the paper, or to explain each term as it becomes necessary. Woolfe’s article demonstrates an exemplary approach to the issue.
–Rosamond van Wingerden ’20
Zachary Woolfe: “A Young Singer Takes the Opera World by Storm.” The New York Times. 28 December, 2018.
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