Opera & Musical Theater

Surtitles at the Opera

Eric Skelly explores the ways that opera companies have worked to circumvent the language barrier, as well as the history and technology behind one of their more useful tools, the surtitle.

All of us at one time or another have had to approach Opera for the very first time.  For many of us that entailed overcoming obstacles.

Some of us had to find ways to afford Opera on a student’s virtually non-existent budget.  Others were perhaps intimidated by Opera’s misperceived reputation as an exclusive art form.  But the greatest obstacle for first-time opera-goers must surely be the language barrier.

HGO's production of Don Carlo, as seen through HGO's OperaVision
HGO’s production of Don Carlo, as seen through HGO’s OperaVision

Most of the standard repertoire is not written in our native tongue.  Aida, The Magic Flute and Carmen were all composed as popular entertainment, and therefore written in the respective languages of their premiere audiences.  For 21st-century American audiences who don’t necessarily speak Italian, German or French, that poses a problem: they can’t understand what the heck anyone onstage is singing.

For most of the 20th century, the solution to that problem was to perform opera in translation.

Ask any opera audiophile and they’ll gleefully produce their favorite recording of Christa Ludwig singing Verdi’s Lady Macbeth in German, or the famous recording of Maria Callas singing Wagner’s Kundry in Italian.  Some American companies as well as London’s English National Opera still perform all opera in English translation.

The Canadian Opera Company's The Flying Dutchman, 1996
The Canadian Opera Company’s The Flying Dutchman, 1996. Photo: Gary Beechey

Opera in translation certainly solves the problem of getting the audience to understand what the characters onstage are saying/singing, but at the same time it introduces an entirely new problem.  Ideally, opera is the perfect union of music and words.  The music enhances the natural rhythms and sounds of the language in which the libretto is written.  When you try to shoe-horn the libretto into another language, that perfect union becomes a little less-than-perfect at best…downright clumsy and awkward at worst.  A few years ago, a friend came back from Germany reporting having seen a production of Porgy and Bess.  He eagerly anticipated all of the musical highlights he knew so well from hearing Houston Grand Opera’s productions and revivals over the years, his favorite being the famed duet “Bess, You is My Woman Now.”  Only in this production, what he heard was “Bess, du bist mein Frau, ja! ja!”

Let’s take just a moment to stop giggling and expunge that aural absurdity from our minds’ ears.

Forcing an English translation upon music written with an altogether different language in mind is not unlike watching a foreign film with the dialogue dubbed by different actors than those onscreen.  Sometimes it works.  However too often the voice clearly doesn’t belong to the character onscreen, whose mouth is obviously forming completely different vowels and consonants than the ones coming from the soundtrack.  Moreover, the character on film and the soundtrack voice don’t always even start and stop at the same time.  Most film buffs much prefer to watch a foreign film intact with its own original soundtrack, and with subtitles to provide the English-language translation.

HGO's inaugural Wortham Center Plazacast of La Cenerentola
HGO’s inaugural Wortham Center Plazacast of La Cenerentola

It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the opera industry came up with the theatrical equivalent of film subtitles.  Called surtitles or supertitles because the translation appeared above the stage proscenium (hence the prefix sur- or super-), some early versions involved nothing more high-tech than a 35-millimeter slide projector.  When no less than England’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden introduced surtitles to its foreign-language productions in 1986, their system comprised three slide carousels.  This limited the number of titles for the entire show to the number of slides the three carousels could hold, of course, and making textual changes to an individual title cost time and money.

Since then, many different surtitle systems have been developed, virtually all of those currently in use being computer-driven.  Touring companies tend to like systems that produce the captions as an LED readout (not unlike those on your home stereo control panels), as these systems are less high-tech than the more sophisticated systems, and are therefore more easily portable and less expensive.  Powerpoint generated titles are very popular, and have been seen in use from Seattle Opera on the West Coast to Boston Lyric Opera on the East Coast, as well as the U.K.’s Opera North among many others.

One of the first U.S. companies to employ surtitles, Houston Grand Opera developed its own surtitle software, HGO Titles, which it has successfully marketed to such other U.S. companies as Glimmerglass Opera in upper New York state.  A Microsoft Windows-based program, HGO Titles weds versatility (e.g. variable font colors, styles, point sizes, and variable fades that enable the titles to blend more seamlessly with the production) with user-friendliness (reportedly, you don’t have to be a computer genius to learn to operate it).

Figaro Systems' seatback-mounted LCD titling system
Figaro Systems’ seatback-mounted LCD titling system

Recently, large companies have been flocking to a new Santa Fe-based company called Figaro Systems, which designs and markets titling systems in which the titles are displayed on small, liquid crystal display screens embedded in the back of the seat in front of you, the opera-goer.  You can opt for translations in several languages, or you can simply turn the screen off if you’d prefer to watch the opera without titles.  Companies employing seat-back titles include Seattle Opera, The Met, Santa Fe Opera, London’s Royal Opera, the Vienna State Opera and the Teatro Liceu in Barcelona.  Figaro Systems is marketing this same system to the NFL for installation in football stadiums.

Judi Palmer of the Royal Opera, Covent Garden reports that the Royal Opera in Copenhagen has developed a new system in collaboration with the Danish Foundation for the Active Blind.  This system sends titles through a radio signal to a hand-held Braille keyboard, allowing blind patrons to read titles.

So with all this technology at our disposal now, what can’t surtitles do?!  Well, for one thing, they can’t translate every single line of the libretto.  Paraphrasing is still necessary; otherwise we’d spend the entire performance reading the surtitles and ignoring the performers onstage.  And there are times, of course, when we don’t want every single line translated.  Handel operas, for instance, are full of arias consisting of two or three lines repeated ad infinitum.  At such times we can all be grateful for judicious editing on the part of the surtitlist.

When surtitles first appeared, some opera purists were outraged.  There are those who still find surtitles intrusive and distracting, although with new technology significantly reducing if not completely eliminating the distraction, the outcry has lessened over the past two decades.

Nonetheless, newcomers to Opera love titles (sur-, seatback or otherwise).  Titles are the best means we have to eliminate Opera’s language barrier, and for that reason alone, they’re here to stay!