Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

It is a good day to die. Or to go to the opera. Your choice.

Hey, music lovers!  There's a opera that is currently touring Europe, and just was performed this week in Rijeka, Croatia.  Maybe it will soon come to a venue near you, which would be very cool, because...

...the entire opera is written, and performed, in Klingon.  (Read about it here.)

It's called "U," which is a good thing, since if the title was actually a phrase in Klingon it would probably be slightly more difficult to pronounce.  Klingon is a true language, invented by linguists hired by the people in charge of the Star Trek franchise; it has a real syntax, phonetic and morphological structure, and so on.  So, despite the fact that it includes sounds similar to those made by a water buffalo being examined by a proctologist, it deserves recognition as one of the only complete synthetic languages (a distinction it shares with J. R. R. Tolkien's Elvish and only a handful of others).

And now, someone has written a Klingon opera.

The story apparently surrounds the life of Kahless the Unforgettable, a historical figure whom I had ironically enough forgotten about completely, even though I used to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation fairly regularly.  Kahless, I was reminded by this week's news releases, was the first Klingon emperor, and the opera centers on his rise to the position of leader of the Klingon home world, and how he deals with the loss of the ones he loves, and ultimately, betrayal by his closest associates. So, basically, it's kind of Julius Caesar in Outer Space.

The people who are in charge of this production seem to be taking it pretty seriously.  "The Klingons are known as passionate opera lovers but at the same time very little was known about Klingon opera here," said Floris Schonfeld, one of the opera's creators, who may need a refresher on the definition of the words "fictional alien species."  "So as far as I was concerned, that was a very interesting challenge to try and make an authentic, or as authentic something out of that as possible."

I must add at this point that Schonfeld and his pals have also somehow convinced the owners of a powerful radio transmitter to send a press release in the direction of the star Arcturus, alleged to be the sun of the Klingon home world.  The unfortunate part is that the radio signal will take 36 years to reach Arcturus, at which point I suspect the curtains will have closed on "U," so it's probably a fairly futile gesture.

I have to say that despite my poking fun at this Extraterrestrial Extravaganza, there's a part of me that thinks it is pretty awesome, and it's not because I'm some kind of closet Trekkie (which I'm not).  It has to do with how awesome it is that the linguists hired by the original show have created a language that is complex and rich enough to actually write an opera in.  C'mon, don't you think that's cool?  You can even take college courses in Klingon.  I'm not making this up.  The University of Wisconsin, which has one of the most prestigious World Languages Department of any college in the world, has a 100-level course in Klingon.  If you're more serious about your studies, you can attend the Klingon Language Institute, in Flourtown, Pennsylvania (motto: "qo’mey poSmoH Hol," which means "language opens worlds, or else crushes them into dust if they dare to resist").  There, you can achieve fluency, which will no doubt impress your friends, coworkers, and potential lovers ("I know that sounded like I was gargling with yogurt, but it actually means 'You are extremely hot' in Klingon!").

For some years, I have offered an independent study class at my high school in Intro to Linguistics, and the final project for this class is to create the rudiments of a synthetic language.  I assign this project, in part, because it gets students to understand how complex language actually is; I've found that they learn more about English syntax by trying to create a synthetic one than they would from any number of English grammar classes.  They are supposed to submit, as part of the project, a lexicon of at least a hundred words, and a passage from English that has been translated into their language -- my last group translated The Very Hungry Caterpillar, an accomplishment that was far harder than it sounds and of which they were, very rightly, proud.

It's always interesting to see what happens when the reins are loosed on human creativity.  We might laugh about a Klingon opera (and better to laugh about it than directly at it -- when you laugh at Klingons, they tend to rip your arm off and beat you to death with it).  But it really is pretty cool that such a thing could be written and performed.

I realize I am opening myself up to some serious ridicule here for saying that, but I don't care.  So, to anyone who is going to give me grief about this, I say: "Hab SoSlI' Quch!" ("Your mother has a smooth forehead.")

1 comment:

  1. This is very cool.

    Although, I don't think I'll be booking a flight to Rijeka to go see it. Considering that my feelings on conventional opera are that there are some awesome overtures and a few good arias, I think that a Klingon opera would be something akin to sticking icepicks in my ears while standing next to a giant speaker at a death metal concert. For three hours.

    That said, the linguistic work to develop Klingon and the use of it in an opera are fascinating.