Audiences hang on opera's every word

With supertitles, you don't have to be multilingual to follow the story

Classical Music

October 10, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Last night's audience at the Lyric Opera House would have had no trouble understanding the first word of Giacomo Puccini's La Fanciulla del West - "Hello." Or, a few minutes into the performance, "Wells Fargo." Or, in the second act, "Ugh."

But almost everything else was in Italian. So, to figure out what all those Gold Rush miners, a Mexican bandit, a sheriff and a Bible-reading, saloon-owning woman were doing, most folks in the theater surely did what they have gladly done for the past two decades there - glance up at the supertitles.

Time was when operagoers who weren't fluent in several languages, or industrious enough to do advance preparation by reading the libretto beforehand, could only get so much out a performance.

In 1710, British essayist Joseph Addison predicted that future generations would be "very curious to know why their forefathers used to sit together like an audience of foreigners in their own country" to hear operas "in a tongue which they did not understand."

All of that changed in 1983 with an idea from Canadian Opera's then-general director Lotfi Mansouri, developed by director of operations John Leberg. They figured out a way to project translations of an opera's text onto a screen during a performance.

The obvious parallel is the practice of providing subtitles for a foreign film. The difference is placement - opera titles are projected above the stage, hence the term supertitles (or surtitles, the name trademarked by Canadian Opera).

Within nine months of their debut in Toronto, titles were introduced at New York City Opera and, from there, one company after another.

"I've always been a great proponent of them," says Baltimore Opera general director Michael Harrison. "They make opera more accessible. They were a great component in building audiences in the 1980s and '90s."

Statistics back that up. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, opera attendance nationally increased 35 percent between 1982 and 1992, and rose another 8 percent the next 10 years.

Audiences soon took supertitles for granted. Folks who previously hadn't a clue what anyone was singing about grew incensed if any technical malfunction affected their access to translations. And there could be lots of malfunctions.

The old system

The original supertitles system, used in Baltimore until 2000, employed a xenon projector and 35mm slides - one slide for each line or two of translated text. An average production used about 500 slides.

The projector was initially located in a lighting booth behind the balcony in the Lyric.

"There would be three conventional Kodak carousels stacked with slides," says Baltimore Opera production manager Peter Johnson. The slides dropped down between glass mounts at the push of a button.

"But the xenon light bulb was very hot," says the company's surtitles operator, Adele Gray, "and it would frequently warp the glass, so the slides wouldn't drop. Every time you had the first cue for a new carousel, you always wondered whether the [slide] would drop or not."

But a live performance waits for no titles. So things could get pretty hairy up in the booth, where Gray would sit by the projector, following the performance with a score.

"When things went wrong, you had to fake it, or wait for intermission to fix it," Gray says. "The slides were frequently out of focus. Sometimes they weren't correctly mounted, and you couldn't adjust it. Or the machine jammed. We had some times up there, I can tell you. And I swear like a sailor. Luckily the booth is soundproof."

The location of that booth presented a problem. It was hard enough to project an image clearly from that distance. But the projection also competed with light coming from the stage. Brightly lit scenes meant that the supertitles could barely be read on the screen.

One more potential problem: "If someone decided to change a translation late in the rehearsals," Johnson says, "you would have to run out and get a new slide processed. You couldn't have quick turnaround. And it was expensive."

For all of the headache and cost of the old slide system, one disaster was avoided. "Funnily enough, a bulb never burned out during a show," Gray says.

A necessity today

Today, the prospect of being without supertitles, even for part of a performance, would not sit well with most audiences.

"Some people's enjoyment is entirely dependent on supertitles," Harrison says. "But others don't give them a glance."

When they were new, supertitles drew fire in certain quarters for being intrusive, disconcerting even for those who didn't look at them. The most prominent holdout in this country against supertitles was the Metropolitan Opera, where artistic director James Levine declared they would be used only over his dead body.

He relented when new technology was developed. In 1995, "Met Titles" debuted - compact, individual (and individually activated) screens placed on the back of each seat.

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