La Musica e le Parole

And what, may you ask, is that?

That, my friends, is an empty supertitle screen.

When I read Anthony Tommasini’s article on supertitles in last Sunday’s New York Times I had no idea that we’d be conducting our own unintentional experiment within days. Tonight, immediately prior to our invited dress rehearsal for Alcina, the supertitle projector in for the orchestra level screen went on the fritz. (Our theatre, while extremely small, requires 2 separate projectors due to its quirky layout.) So the folks in the balcony had a “reading experience” and those on the orchestra level did it the old school way.

I had a lovely conversation this afternoon with a colleague who’s been working in the supertitle business since its birth. Even though all of us know that it all started in 1983, it was just a little startling to do the math and realize that this niche of the opera world is a quarter-century old.

As is my tendency, I have the curse of seeing this issue from both sides.

I’ve written and “called” (cued) titles for 23 years, and I’ve seen what good they can do. Before titles, even in our intimate theatre, singers would often resort to semaphoric acting, desperate to communicate a story across the footlights. With the advent of titles, there’s a implicit understanding that each patron has access to the details and nuances of the plot.

I get terribly itchy, though, when the subject is supertitles for operas sung in English. Just this spring I enjoyed an untitled opera, relishing in the undiluted connection I had with the characters onstage. (It must be said, though, that many of my fellow patrons resented not being able to read the libretto on the screen.)

Even the oft-mentioned benefit of audience building isn’t immune to controversy. You might think that it’s a no-brainer: that understanding what everyone is singing about is bound to attract more new fans. But consider this from Mr. Tommasini: “In my early teens, when I heard my first “La Bohème,” it was with Renata Tebaldi at the Met. I had only the vaguest idea of what the opera was about. But listening to her uncannily sumptuous singing, I was overcome with indefinable feelings of longing, sadness, bliss and loss. What was this experience if not a kind of sublime drama?”

Every opera lover worth his salt can cite a formative experience like this one. However, it doesn’t dilute the significance of such an experience to suggest that had supertitles existed in the 1950’s, Mr. Tommasini could have still had his epiphany. And perhaps another teenager, who mightn’t have yet been able to appreciate Tebaldi’s genius, would’ve fallen in love with the timeless Boheme story as he pulled the details from the supertitles.

Even though I usually wish that we could “all just get along,” I’m surprisingly willing to agree to disgree on this topic. Long live the controversy. Opera lovers are nothing if not opinionated. My experience is that they only seize onto things they care about, and I’m not unhappy to continue to this debate. Music and words. That’s where this all started 400 years ago.

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