I attended the Opera America Board meeting in New York last week, and one of the important topics we considered was the continuing need for audience development in opera companies, whether prestigious or scrappy, large or small. I explored a variety of new and far-reaching audience outreach efforts in an earlier "Off The Cuff" column, including simulcasts and performances in non-traditional spaces (The New Opera Audience), but was reminded during my visit of the continuing importance of another longstanding operatic innovation: supertitles. Like many aspects of the opera business, supertitles have evolved considerably in the last 30 years, in different and revealing ways.
As most readers will know, supertitles are text translations of the opera corresponding to what is currently being sung on stage. In America, these translations are, of course, in English, but more sophisticated systems provide the choice of up to several languages so that patrons can read the supertitles in their preferred language. So dependent are modern audiences on supertitles that when a technical glitch causes even a brief interruption, audiences notice virtually immediately.
My friend and mentor Lotfi Mansouri invented supertitles in 1983 for a production of Richard Strauss's opera Elektra when he was General Director of the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. As I see it, the business and artistic challenge he was trying to address is simple to understand, while dependent on technological breakthroughs to resolve. No matter how sophisticated and well-educated opera patrons may be, they typically do not know or understand every word of the libretto when the opera is performed in their non-native language. Furthermore, even if the audience does know the language being sung, it is often hard to understand what the singers are saying, because some artists will be singing the language with their own accent, and the act of singing itself can distort vowels (for example, a tenor or soprano will often subtly alter some vowels when they sing high notes). The use of supertitles ensures that audiences can understand not just the "gist" of what's taking place on stage, but also the dramatic nuances.
When Beverly Sills was General Director of New York City Opera, she introduced a similar titling system in 1983 for a new production of Massenet's Cendrillon—earning a mixed reaction from a number of contemporary critics. The Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine, was reportedly initially opposed to the idea of supertitles when they first appeared, but came around, particularly once individual screens on seat backs were installed which gave audience members a chance to turn the screens off if they were unwelcome. Counter-balancing the initial naysayers was some positive critical reaction. Donal Henahan from the New York Times described supertitles in his review of Cendrillon as "a dangerous experiment in audience education that on the whole worked astonishingly well."
Over time, patrons have enthusiastically embraced supertitles. When I have reviewed marketing surveys for various American opera companies, typically 98-99 percent of patrons have a positive or very positive feeling towards supertitles. The remaining 1-2 percent of patrons finds them visually distracting, or otherwise unwelcome, but that reflects a very small percentage of the total—especially when they have had such a major impact in making the operatic art form more accessible and comprehensible.
One of the big debates that followed the invention of supertitles was the question of their ideal placement in the performance chamber. Supertitles are often placed high above the stage, sometimes with secondary screens in the house. The most common configuration is a single screen above the stage, but supertitle screens can also be placed high up at two separate locations over stage left and stage right. For companies who can afford them, seatback supertitles are also popular, but they are expensive to retrofit. In 2006, we evaluated adding them for the San Francisco Opera in the War Memorial Opera House, but they would have cost as much as $1,000 per seat.
Another important issue for supertitles has to do with the way in which translations are presented. In an opera with lots of repeated words or sections (e.g. Mozart), should the opera company present the words once—and risk looking like the system has stopped—or multiple times, and risk irritating the audience by the repetition? There is another design issue as well. One of the great virtues of the operatic art form is that multiple singers can be singing very different words expressing conflicting emotions, all at the same time—something you could never do in the context of spoken theater. This creates a challenge for the supertitle designer in determining just how to show multiple lines of text simultaneously on a screen to convey the disparate thoughts of several characters.
More recently, the growing popularity of large-scale projections such as simulcasts has added new technical challenges. As simulcasts have became more popular, opera companies have needed to add supertitles, which is harder than it sounds. In a theater, supertitles are "low tech," in that they are simple text documents saved on a computer, and projected on a screen. To advance to the next title, a member of the production staffs presses a button on the computer. By contrast, simulcasts and related media projects rely on multiple cameras to focus on the stage action, but the TV camera will not pick up supertitle screens far above the stage. The supertitle text needs to be added in electronically, as The Dallas Opera did with its simulcast in 2012. (By the way, TDO is presenting another simulcast, this time of Puccini's Turandot, on April 13. Free tickets are available here. Please join us!)
The role of supertitles in opera performances still provokes lively debate, even 30 years after their creation. As an example, I attended the Met's performance of Rigoletto last weekend. The production featured a superb cast, including Diana Damrau, Zeljko Lucic and Piotr Beczala in a new production by Michael Mayer set in the 1960s in Las Vegas.
The supertitles were notable for two reasons. First, they incorporated far more colloquial use of language than reflected in the original Italian. As Anthony Tommasini noted in his review in The New York Times, the Duke sang the text for "Questa o quella" in the original Italian, but the words were translated as the far more colloquial "This girl or that girl/I'll give any girl a whirl." From my point of view, one potential risk is that the translation becomes so entertaining that audiences lose their focus on the stage, but in this particular production the "stretching" of the words seemed benign.
There was a second aspect of the Met's supertitles, though, that was more significant. The director's concept required updating the opera from the 16th century to the 1960s, which required a number of important changes to the characters and the action. One major change was to the character of Monterone, who is sentenced to death for defying the Duke. In the Met's production, Monterone became an Arab sheik, and the supertitles were adjusted accordingly. This to me crosses a new line, in that the supertitles are being used to explain and support the director's vision—a separate debate from how literally to translate the original Italian text. This approach can clearly be taken to extremes, but the audience seemed to react positively to the director's vision, and appeared to enjoy the extra explanatory power of the supertitles.
In another area, the proliferation of sophisticated hand-held devices such as tablets and iPads opens up a potential new way to display supertitles, and I am regularly asked whether these types of technology will be adopted in the opera house. One major downside of these devices is "light leak"—i.e. the risk that the light from one person's screen will disturb another, but this problem could theoretically be fixed by asking patrons to use polarizing filters so that the screens are only visible straight on. Internet-ready eyeglasses with built-in projection capabilities that can display text is another option that may emerge over time, and Google is working on a variety of new technologies in this area.
As we look back over the last 30 years, the invention of supertitles has unquestionably had a major and positive impact on audiences. Discreetly managed supertitles increase the accessibility of the art form, allow the audience to understand dramatic nuances in subtle and complex operas, and provide only minimal disruption to patrons who do not feel that they need the assistance. They have clearly had an extremely positive impact on audience development since their invention. Looking forward, I cannot predict the next "dangerous experiment," but General Directors across the country are all searching for ways to make opera more accessible and to build new audiences. I feel very confident that well-managed supertitles will continue to be part of that story.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Here is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
◊ Join Keith Cerny and Heather Kitchen, managing director of Dallas Theater Center, in The Dallas Opera's "Conversations with Keith," at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 5 at Hamon Hall in the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House. The conversation, moderated by Jerome Weeks of KERA/Art&Seek, will focus on "Accessible versus Avant-Garde Productions of Music and Theater," and there will be an audience Q&A.