Contemplating opera in the 'Age of Surtitles'

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of BAMirror’s goals is to be an online salon, a place where you can join in a conversation about the arts. I’m going to share some of my recent reflections and hope that you will chime in (like that musical allusion?) with some thoughts of your own.
Ever since the final curtain call of Tri-Cities Opera’s recent production of “The Elixir of Love,” I’ve been thinking about surtitles (those subtitles “over” the stage that translate the lyrics) and how they have affected my opera-going experience. I saw my first opera, “Tosca,” at TCO at age 10. I read the synopsis in the program, which gave the plot and a general gist of the famous arias. After that, I had to rely on the staging, the singers’ body language and the emotion of the music to follow the story, because I didn’t speak Italian. But that was fine. I was swept up, transported and completely hooked into a lifetime of loving opera.
As an adult, I joined the TCO chorus and found myself learning some of the scores twice, because shows were offered in both the original language and in English.  (There were six performances over two weekends in those days.) Comedies were always in English so that you could catch the verbal humor, a programming decision I heartily supported despite the sometimes awkward phrasing. But the dramas, the tragedies? Couldn’t they just let things be?
With the notable exception of Gary Race’s heartfelt “Madama Butterfly” translation, most of the English versions I sang either teamed poorly with the notes or, in order to mesh better with the music, employed odd variations of logic or grammar. (And nobody understood us sopranos, anyway.) I groused, “Why not let the audience just immerse itself in the music as I had with that ‘Tosca’ long ago?”
However, I was totally ignoring the fact that all of those Italian and French operas had premiered in Italy and France, where audiences DID understand the libretto. For Verdi or Puccini or Bizet, the words were part of the total package, and Americans deserved the same deal.
That brings us to surtitles, the perfect compromise. The singers perform even in the comedies in the original language, which makes the music sound better, but the translation is visible on the proscenium for anyone who needs word-by-word understanding in order to enjoy a show. (And, in recent seasons, the TCO surtitles have been particularly well-thought-out, because they weren’t rented; they were produced in-house by longtime TCOer Carolyn Amory.)
When TCO began using surtitles, I declared myself a purist. I would never look up at them; my opera-going experience would remain as it had begun. But I couldn’t help it; the surtitles were irresistible. I liked knowing the details, not just the general idea. And they’re invaluable to a parent trying to cultivate the next generation of opera audience. Because surtitles add clarity to confusing ensembles and murky melodrama, my14-year-old relies on them, and they have helped turn him into an opera fan. Now, he says he’d like to go the Met, where optional English translations appear on the back of the seat in front of you.
The big question for me, the onetime purist, is: Would I exercise the  “disengage” option, or use those Met translations along with my son?

By | 2010-05-13T16:47:03+00:00 May 13th, 2010|Arts Talk, Broome Arts Mirror, Editorial|