Why are there so few regional accents in opera? And of those regional accents, why is a vanishingly small proportion of them from the North? The North of England linguistically extends from Nottinghamshire and Shropshire up to the Scottish borders, and encompasses a population of around 14.5 million. If it were a country it would be bigger than Sweden and Austria in population. It would have its own orthography and linguistic tradition. It would have its own opera. There is opera in the north, of course, but why does one never hear a Northern accent in it? If a given set of vowels are the markers by which – linguistically – a northern identity is marked, why are those vowels never (or virtually never) heard in opera, the art-form which has traditionally defined a state’s cultural maturity. That’s why there’s an opera house in Manaos in the Amazon. That’s why there’s an opera house in Bratislava, and a new opera house in Oslo. Northern Voices is an ACE-funded project which seeks to redress the balance, and to ask if the absence of Northern accents from opera in English results from northern accents’ lack of “singability” or from other causes.
On May 27th, singer Richard Strivens and I worked on a song with the poet Ian McMillan, whose rich South Yorkshire tones are familiar to listeners of BBC Radio 3, and with University of Salford socio-phoneticist PhilipTipton. Ian wrote this beautiful, poignant text about a man who loves opera, but is afraid to sing it because of his accent, and I set it to music. Almost immediately we were faced with questions: is “mouth” pronounced as in Leeds, or as in Sheffield (‘mahth’). Philip Tipton, who works on vowel merger in Lancashire (which is why ‘fur’ rhymes with ‘square’ in Burnley), acted as a phorensic voice coach, taking every dipthong and every monophthong (not a place name near Upperthong) apart, until we had several lines of the song as close to Ian’s natural pronunciation as possible.
You can hear edited audio of the session here. I asked Richard Strivens, a bass-baritone originally from Kent, to prepare a song (which he got in score only, less than 24 hours before the session). I asked him to prepare it as he normally would, not worrying too much about trying for a Northern accent, and it was this initial version you will hear mostly on the recording, intercut with our initial discussions, and with our attempts to “Northern-ify” his pronunciation.