The "universal language of mankind"; or, Do You Verstehen Surtitles?

According to Longfellow, our “universal language” is music. This might account for the international crowd at Budapest’s splendid opera and operetta houses; or perhaps it is ticket prices, which the locals are less likely to tolerate than the visitors in town for a good time. It is like that the world over, I suspect. New Yorkers are hardly the main audience for Broadway shows. What is on offer in any cultural center is largely owing to centrifugal forces. Is it the music that is universally understood? Or is it just that money talks without an accent?

Longfellow—who made above remark while on the subject of “Ancient Spanish Ballads”—is often quoted out of context. The “universal” is not meant to imply the absence or insignificance of regional or national idioms. We might all share a love of song without necessarily trilling the same tune:

The muleteer of Spain carols with the early lark, amid the stormy mountains of his native land. The vintager of Sicily has his evening hymn; the fisherman of Naples his boat-song; the gondolier of Venice his midnight serenade. The goatherd of Switzerland and they Tyrol, the Carpathian boor, the Scotch Highlander, the English ploughboy, singing as he drives his team afield—peasant, serf, slave, all, all have their ballads and traditional songs.

It is not local color you are likely to discover when stepping inside the larger venues, painted as they are in the color of money. What, I asked myself as I walked past a Finn in the foyer, is the intended audience for productions mounted by the National Hungarian Opera, where last year we took in the bewildering spectacle of Gone With the Wind, staged as a ballet to the music of Czech composer Dvořák, a pop-cultural miscalculation meant to foster good relations between Hungary and the United States. On offer this time around was Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa, in Czech, with Magyar surtitles. Is it any wonder I am getting Prague and Pest confused as I try to recall our adventures in theatregoing?

In such moments of cultural confusion the Pontevedrian embassy can generally be relied upon as a refuge for the historically challenged. Yes, the Pontevedrian embassy is always open for business. Said Graustarkian edifice was set up for our convenience at the Budapesti Operettszínház, where the ever popular Lustige Witwe (heard here in a 23 January 1950 broadcast of Railroad Hour starring Gordon MacRae) once more saved her make-believe nation (or was it Montenegro?) from bankruptcy and waltzed off with the less-than-patriotic Danilo (portrayed with brio by Dániel Gábor) into the bargain—all in Hungarian with German supertitles, which, much to my irritation, I caught myself editing.

Finally, we went to the ballet, where “universal” meant lissome girl dancing with scrawny boy . . . to canned music. “Can real friendship exist between a man and a woman, and if so, why not? Happiness and pain follows each other again and again until death comes,” choreographer Antal Fodor comments in his note on “A nö hétszer” (“Women Times Seven”). Sometimes, you just have to provide your own translation . . .

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