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Sopra le parole?: opera surtitles in London

The argument about opera surtitles recently erupted again in the British press when the Royal Opera chose to provide titles in English for their performances of Billy Budd. North American houses have provided English surtitles (or Met titles at seats) for English works for many years with little more than a background rumble of discontent, about the distraction or about dumbing down. But the titles at Covent Garden caused a holy row, and there was religious fervour both for and against. What is really at stake?

Casual objections to surtitles focus on the distraction (and often ugliness) of the lighted text far above the stage. Better design of titles, and innovative use of technology, can usually meet these objections, though of course these things cost money.

Some who regard going to the opera as a sacred or civic duty further complain that the audience should do their homework and familiarize themselves with the work before the performance and not be helped to cheat with a crib. But opera is, after all, entertainment, and following the action as it unfolds is a major part of the pleasure of seeing most works for the first time. Providing a way into the performance as it happens, a pointer at least to where we are, who is involved -- all those frocks and uniforms can look the same -- and what is going on, is surely the main benefit of titles. And in any case, not everybody has the time or the resources to study the score or recordings before a performance.

An extension of the previous argument objects to the intrusion of written text into a performance form where language is only one, inextricable, component of a saturated, irreducible experience. When you read the words separately, they become the foreground of the performance, regardless of where in your field of vision the text is. And of course when the text in the titles is in the same language as that in which the performers are signing, the verbal signal is duplicated and far easier to follow, and so given a prominence it does not deserve within the whole. There is a kind of Platonic worry here that written words provide an illusion of certain knowledge; and in practical terms, it is probably true that not everyone can read titles and take in the music at the same time. Similarly, from the performers’ point of view, the presence of titles could make it seem less necessary to try to communicate the actual words of the performance.

But this last argument surely explicitly assigns far too much power to the written word: most audience members know that the point in most operas is not the words, but the characters, the situations they find themselves in and the emotions that arise from them. The London audiences for Handel’s Italian operas knew about as little Italian as their modern equivalents. They read a synopsis and knew the non-verbal language of character and sentiment, expressed in gestures and in the voices themselves. And they cheered and admired the great scenes even though they listened with half an ear and behaved in ways which modern opera audiences wouldn’t dream of. If the opera itself speaks to the audience, titles cannot drown out the message, but might on occasion make it a little clearer for some audience members, particularly those who are not familiar with the work or the language of the performance.

In the end, it is the nature of the specific opera, and of the production and performances, that must determine whether titles are damaging, useful or essential. The Royal Opera probably didn’t do any harm by providing titles for Billy Budd, although perhaps one or two more French members of the audience in less good seats realised they were being defamed. But Jeremy Sams was probably also right to refuse permission for his idiomatic and theatrical translation of the Magic flute to be performed with English surtitles in a small house. And you have to admire the ENO for persisting with opera in English and no titles, aspiring to treat even the Bohèmes and Carmens that put tourist bums on seats as living art.

H.E. Elsom



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