Long Live the Surtitle!

In this Sunday’s New York Times, Anthony Tommasini writes about opera surtitles* being used for operas that are performed in English. Tommasini uses a recent trip to the English National Opera where they did not use surtitles for Benjamin Britten’s opera “Death in Venice” as his jumping off point. He is not exactly anti-surtitles, but he does seem to suffer from a bit of elitist angst over the use of surtitles when operas are performed in the native language of the audience.

Among other things, Tommasini is supportive of the ENO’s mission to present all of their productions in English. I take the exact opposite view and think that the ENO’s continued use of English translations is silly since the advent of surtitles. Contrary to Tommasini’s point of view, there are very few vocal lines that allow singers to produce truly clear—understand it in the cheap seats—diction. Nor are there many singers who can pull it off even if such vocal lines existed. Some of the best voices don’t necessarily come with the best diction.

When I lived in London in 1992, making a measly 540 GBPs a month while paying rent in the West End, the only reason I went to the ENO was because it was affordable. And for all the time I spent at the ENO then and more recently, I can tell you I understood precious few of the words sung on any given night.

Tommasini also makes the rather obvious observation that it would have been inconceivable to Verdi and Wagner to have their operas performed without being translated into the vernacular language. Oh brother. I bet they wouldn’t have been able to conceive of a lot of things that happen in modern opera performances from staging, to the price and quality of the food available during intermission, to lighting, heck, maybe even to flush toilets.

No doubt Verdi could not have imagined someone sitting on a train or running on a treadmill listening to one of his works through a pair of headphones. Hmm…I guess that means no more Macbeth on my iPod. Sorry Verdi, didn’t mean to blow your mind.

*Surtitles are like subtitles in a foreign film except they are usually projected above the stage during an opera performance. Some places like the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Staatsoper in Vienna have individual readouts on the seat in front of you that you can turn on or off as you wish. In Vienna you can even choose among German, English, and the language in which the opera is being sung.

2 thoughts on “Long Live the Surtitle!

  1. juliebean July 24, 2007 / 5:03 pm

    So wait, he’s saying that Wagner and Verdi would expect their works to be translated to English for the English audience? I guess, but that seems a little weird to me. It seems like they would have chosen specific Italian or German words for the sounds they make. Just as it is close to impossible to translate a poem – you can translate the meaning, but the feeling is the difficult thing – I would think it would be the same for Opera.Anyway, I’d always choose subtitles in a movie over dubbing, just because I love hearing the flow of the actual language. But that is a different story.


  2. W50 July 26, 2007 / 3:14 pm

    I’m totally with you. Not only are surtitles indespensible for those of us who don’t happen to speak Italian, or German, or Russian or whatever, but they are of great use even when the opera is in the audience’s native language. I saw “Grendel” recently, which is mostly in English, as well as a few operettas that were translated into English. The surtitles were extremely helpful, because the simple fact is that language sounds a lot different sung than spoken. Even if you know the vocabulary, you may not actually understand the words as they leave the singers’ mouths. I wish people like this Tomassini wouldn’t be so stuck up about opera. It’s detrimental to the genre, as well as to the wider reputation of opera lovers as a group.


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