Learning language of opera

Music: The presence of surtitles has changed the atmosphere of opera performances.

Fine arts

January 09, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Call it the age of operatic en-title-ment.

The startling increase in the popularity of opera over the past two decades is frequently attributed to the arrival of surtitles - projected translations of the libretto on a screen above the stage. Between 1982 and 1992, audiences for opera increased by 25 percent in the United States, according to Opera America, a trade and advocacy organization. And that trend appears to be continuing.

Surtitles certainly eradicated the oft-heard complaint, especially from all the disgruntled spouses being dragged to the opera house, that it was hard to understand what was happening on stage. Going to the opera became more like going to see foreign movies; not every word was translated, but the gist of the dialogue was made plain.

No sooner did surtitles appear than purists objected, partly on the grounds of the unavoidable distraction involved (reading takes the audience's eyes - and ears - away from the stage), and partly because the new invention meant audiences would be even less likely to study up on an opera before attending. (Time was when you had to read a libretto first, usually while listening to a recording of the opera, if you wanted to know what was being sung.)

It also became quickly apparent that the technology of surtitles could not always mesh with the pace of a performance; in comic operas, for example, the punch lines almost invariably appear on the screen a few seconds before they are actually sung, setting off premature laughter.

Inappropriate laughter is another problem. Sometimes, the translations themselves can cause it. Audiences used to sit quietly while Tosca told her boyfriend-painter to redo the blue eyes on his latest portrait of the Madonna; when the words "blacken her eyes" appeared above the stage in one notorious performance, the crowd roared. Even more delicate translations of that line tend to set off silly titters.

Sometimes, even when the words themselves are not to blame, the effect can be disturbing. Whenever "Il trovatore" is done, for example, you can count on guffaws in the scene where the heroine momentarily mistakes the bad guy for her lover. I don't remember hearing anyone laugh at that moment in the pre-surtitle days, but something about reading the actual works that go with such an implausible scene (and implausible scenes are rampant in opera) seems to give audiences the jollies.

But none of these shortcomings will ever derail the surtitle movement, and I wouldn't suggest that they should. The point of the titles, after all, is to make opera more accessible, a laudable goal, to be sure.

It's worth remembering, though, that the preferred method in the old days was simply to sing each work in the language of the audience. This approach was especially popular on the Continent, where "Figaros Hochzeit" was how Germans learned "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Il flauto magico" was how Italians usually heard "The Magic Flute."

In Britain, opera in English remains a fairly strong tradition, with an entire company, the English National Opera, devoted to the practice. But on these shores, the practice of singing in the vernacular never caught on in a big enough way.

One main argument against the practice was that composers matched their notes to the specific characteristics of a libretto's original language, that the music simply sounded better the way it was written. And there is certainly something to that. "Your tiny hand is frozen" (as one well-known translation rendered it) never could sound as mellifluous as "Che gelida manina," in Rodolfo's aria from "La Boheme."

But there are unfortunate results from our general disinclination to hear foreign-language operas in English. For one thing, it means we have too many singers with poor English diction. They don't get enough practice and coaching in the art, so, on those rare occasions when they are called upon to sing in their own tongue, the results can be distressingly mushy.

Perhaps more troubling is that American opera companies now routinely treat English as a foreign language. They give us surtitles whenever English is sung. That was the case with Baltimore Opera's recent production of Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" (a translation from the German) and Washington Opera's staging of Menotti's "The Consul" (originally written in English).

Both times I couldn't help but think how strange the presence of surtitles was. Even if there were a few members of each cast who did not sing distinctly, virtually no significant words went unheard or misunderstood.

And yet plenty of heads in the theater were forever bobbing up and down - reading the titles, checking out the action, looking up for another translation.

"To this we've come" (to borrow a memorable line from "The Consul") - English-speaking audiences apparently incapable of receiving direct communication from English-singing vocalists.

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