The Singer’s Library : Singing in Greek

When taking on an easy task, we often compare it to something perceived as overwhelmingly difficult. “It’s not rocket science,” we might say or “It isn’t brain surgery.”

When we find ourselves in over our heads, however, perplexed by the information in front of us, we may explain our confusion with the phrase “It’s all Greek to me!”

Consider, then, the assignment before author Lydía Zervanos in writing her book Singing in Greek: A Guide to Greek Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire. She essentially had to take a topic that has become synonymous with the impossible and make it accessible to a wide audience. No small feat, indeed.

Singing in Greek represents the second book in the Guides to Lyric Diction series published by Rowman & Littlefield. The first book, Singing in Czech: A Guide to Czech Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire, was written by the series editor Timothy Cheek, and book three—Singing in Polish by Benjamin Schultz—is scheduled for a December 2015 release.

Zervanos was a natural fit to author this text. Born in Athens, Greece, she was immersed in music from a young age. Studying piano, cello, and voice, she frequently performed with youth orchestras both in Greece and abroad. She went on to earn degrees in both cello and voice in her studies at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, the Classical & Modern Music Conservatory, and the Musical Horizons Conservatory in Athens. As a classical soprano, she has performed with the Greek National Opera, appeared as soloist with the orchestra of Athens University, and presented recitals in Greece, Germany, and the U.S.

In the foreword to Singing in Greek, Cheek says the Greek language is “made to order for singers” considering it contains only five vowels, no glottal stops, and no double consonants. In addition, the phenomenon of palatalization encourages singers to keep the tongue in a more forward position in specific sounds. As a collaborative pianist and coach, he points out how the widely accepted use of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) has allowed singers to program songs in languages that previous generations would not have considered.

The introductory chapter of Singing in Greek jumps right in to address the specifics of the language. Zervanos begins by taking the Greek alphabet—letters recognizable to many from college fraternity and sorority signs—and transcribing them into IPA symbols. As the chapter continues, it covers syllabic stress, punctuation, diphthongs, and palatalization, and then ends with a pronunciation checklist for quick reference. She compares the Greek language to both Spanish and Italian due to the shared open vowels and crisp consonants, which she feels makes it particularly well suited to singing.

Chapter 1 describes the Greek vowel sounds, using sounds in Italian and English as reference points. Chapter 2 discusses digraphs, two letters that combine to make one sound. And Chapter 3 discusses consonants. Part One—“The Sounds of the Greek Language”—concludes after Chapter 4, which explains assimilation, specifically the connection of words with final [s] and [n] sounds.

With this information provided, Zervanos heads into Part Two, “Greek Vocal Repertoire,” which represents the bulk of the volume. Some of the chapters in this section give overviews of specific eras and genres, including “Ionian School of Music Composers,” “National School of Music Composers,” “Greek Operetta,” and “Modernism in Greek Art Music.” Other chapters more thoroughly explore the style and repertoire of individual Greek composers, including Nikolaos Halikiopoulos-Mantzaros, Pavlos Carrer, George and Napoleon Lambelet, Spyridon-Filiskos Samaras, and Manolis Kalomiris. Each of these composer-devoted chapters provides a brief biography, a listing of the composer’s vocal music, and selected song texts alongside IPA transcriptions and translations.

The book ends with four appendixes listing Greek publishers and organizations, short biographies of nearly two dozen Greek poets, and an index of Greek letters and digraphs transcribed into IPA. The references section lists an additional 30 sources for further exploration on topics including the Greek language, pronunciation, and repertoire.

Finally, the index allows readers to look up composers, song texts, and genres (art song, folk songs, arias, etc.).

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /