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.