“Over My Dead Body” : The Ongoing Surtitle Debate

A quarter of a century ago, regional opera companies were on the rise–and most of them performed exclusively in English. With the founding of companies such as Chicago Opera Theater in 1974 and Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 1977 came a commitment to opera as an entertainment for all. That meant performing in a language that audiences could understand.

There were problems with doing opera in English instead of its original language: the way that words are often married to music by composers; occasionally silly or inept translations; the inability of most non-natives to sing it well. But the advantages of immediacy and intelligibility were generally held to outweigh the disadvantages.

Surtitles changed all that. Surtitles (also known as supertitles) are projected English-language renderings of the libretto that provide a running translation, and they make it possible for almost anyone to enjoy opera in the original languages.

Purists sneered, but surtitles caught on, helping opera become one of the fastest-growing art forms in the country. Even the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where music director James Levine had once said that titles would be used “over my dead body,” spent millions of dollars to install “Met Titles,” individual back-of-the-seat titles that each patron can decide to turn on or ignore. Instant translations are no passing fad.

With surtitles, more and more opera companies have moved to doing opera in the original languages. Opera America, the opera world’s equivalent of a trade association, reports that only 17 of its 106 member organizations now perform standard repertoire in English. That leaves Opera Theatre of St. Louis as the country’s most notable and prestigious holdout, while the English National Opera remains a stalwart across the Atlantic.

“In Europe,” says Opera America president Marc Scorca, “even the great international houses used translations until after World War II. Today, even a house that does things in the original may do a Marriage of Figaro in French or German. In Germany,” he stated, “the smaller houses do everything in German, while in France, singing in the original is the rule. In Italy, there is no set rule–it varies.”

“There are a number of companies that periodically do standard repertoire in English,” says OTSL general director Charles MacKay. “The Met did Makropoulos Case in English instead of Czech. New York City Opera often does operas in English. Santa Fe is doing the prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos in English and the rest of it in German.

“For us, it boils down to direct communication between the audience and us, communication demanded by the intimacy of the Loretto-Hilton Center,” MacKay said. “Surtitles are a huge help in a larger theater. But we are featuring mainly young American singers, and it’s very natural for them to be singing in their native tongue. You wouldn’t expect to see young American actors doing Camille in French or Chekhov in Russian.

“People often worry about the fact that they can’t understand every word–‘Why sing in English? We can’t understand it anyway.’ But I think you could say the same thing with Italian, especially when (the vocal line) gets into the upper reaches.”

On a practical level, MacKay says, “it would be very challenging technically to use surtitles in the Loretto-Hilton, with its thrust stage and unusual sight lines. If the day ever came when we were performing in a bigger theater, it would be appropriate to revisit the issue.”

Lyric Opera of Kansas City has a new artistic team in charge, and they made the decision to switch to original languages this season–after decades of performing in English. LOKC invested in a computerized LED surtitle system that makes the words crisp and easy to read.

When the Kansas City company tested surtitles, “The response was overwhelmingly positive,” says general director Evan Luskin. “And the reality in the Lyric Theatre, given its size–it seats 1,640–was that people could not understand the words anyway. The original reason for using English was accessibility, opening doors. But when people came to us and said, ‘We can’t understand the words,’ we had to question whether we were achieving that.”

Then there’s the question of singers. “Another goal of this company is to give the emerging artist opportunities. You have to question whether you’re doing them a service asking them to learn a role in English,” given the trend toward original languages.

“Occasionally, an artist would not come here because they simply did not have the time or inclination to learn a part in English. And there were times we would not engage a wonderful artist because we thought their English diction wasn’t good enough.”

Carl Ratner, artistic director of Chicago Opera Theater, says, “Opera in English was part of our original mission, and I assume it will always be part of our mission. We want our audiences to be able to come in off the street and experience opera, and I don’t think that will change. I feel that it’s an entirely different and more connected experience to have singers singing the words and the audience understanding them.”

“People complain that they can’t understand the words when you sing opera in English. Well, you can’t understand the words in rock, either!” snorts baritone Robert Orth.

Orth, who sings it all, from standard repertoire in original languages to contemporary opera in English–he created the title role in Harvey Milk–would rather sing in English. “Surtitles come between you and the audience. You can feel it–you can feel them reading the surtitles.”

Orth recalls the first time he did the role of Mercutio in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Mercutio has a fast and funny aria, “and when I first did it in English, the audience loved it. They just roared. When I did it in French, it got polite applause. A lot of my stuff is patter; it goes by really fast. If the audience is reading surtitles, you’re lucky if they look down at you from time to time. In English, they’re watching you deliver it.”

What about diction? Orth replied, “I find that most of us who started in musical comedy, music theater, have better diction than people who started in opera. But anyone can do it. The question is, are you singing to communicate? Do you want to be understood? Words are such a huge part of opera.”

Then there are translations, and the quality thereof. “It used to be a bigger problem 20 years ago, when I was constantly having to learn new translations. Getting a good translation is key. I end up combining them, using the best lines from each of them. Translating is an art.”

Of course, there are some operas that are probably best left alone. “I had one line in Lucia di Lammermoor where we couldn’t find anything to fit that wasn’t funny,” Orth said. “I ended up using really bad diction there, so that nobody would laugh.”

The Des Moines Metro Opera, now in its 27th season, “is an English-language house and always has been,” says founder and artistic director Robert Larson. This season, though, they’re doing Verdi’s Il Trovatore in Italian with surtitles. “It seemed like a natural,” says Larson.

“This does not alter my philosophy that opera should be done in the language of our country. Surtitles, for me, are like art once removed.”
He points out another reason to perform opera in English: “Doing things in the original languages in some ways gives directors license to do anything they want–even if it has nothing to do with the opera.” The notorious director Peter Sellars does his productions in the original languages, then rewrites the translations to say what he wants them to say.

“It continues to be a lively debate,” says Scorca of Opera America. “And the debate is a rich one. We have to acknowledge that opera in English has a greater possibility of connection with the audience. I think the variety enriches the field.”