Visual Aids: Despite Lingering Opposition, Surtitles Are an Integral Part of Staging Opera

By Jordan, Robert | Opera Canada, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Visual Aids: Despite Lingering Opposition, Surtitles Are an Integral Part of Staging Opera


Jordan, Robert, Opera Canada


Seasoned opera-goers remember the pre-surtitle era. But even they may have to stop and think for a moment before realizing that surtitles have been integral to live opera for the better part of a generation. Since January 21, 1983, to be exact, when the Canadian Opera Company became the first in the world to present a visual translation of an opera simultaneously with its performance.

The opera was Richard Strauss's Elektra, and audience response was favorable enough for the COC to repeat the process three months later in Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea. Purism homed in protest and some opera companies remained staunchly aloof, but there was no thwarting the tide. By the early '90s, surtitles were in use in most opera houses in North America, England and Australia, as well as many in Europe.

The word surtitles is actually a registered trademark of the COC and, to be technically correct, is written as Surtitles TM. Companies other than the COC also manufacture their own titles: Dallas Opera's ENCAPS and Pittsburgh Opera's OpTrans are two cases in point. And, in response to artistic director James Levine's decree that his company would have surtitles "over my dead body," the Metropolitan Opera went high tech with its Met Titles, a US$2.7-million system that displays the words on small screens (which patrons can turn off if they wish) on the backs of the theatre seam. Legally, however, companies cannot designate their own systems of titling as SurtitlesTM.

However, there is no shortage of alternatives aside from the trademarked names. Supertitles, supratitles, projected titles and English captions are four of the most common. The generic term may be supertitles, but, in Canada at least, surtitles is the word of choice. And why not? They are, after all, a Canadian invention.

And a timely one, at that. By the early '80s, a declining number of North Americans were fluent in Italian, French and German, the languages of most of the standard operatic repertoire. Potential newcomers were unwilling to fork out for a night at the opera, only to have the vaguest inkling of what was transpiring on stage for the best part of three hours. A crisis loomed.

Enter Lotfi Mansouri, then general director of the COC, who had been pondering the idea of adapting movie subtitles to the opera stage. Movie-goers greatly preferred subtitles (titles below the visual action) to dubbed dialogue in foreign films, but, for obvious reasons, titles below the stage would be impractical in the opera house.

John Leberg, then the COC's director of operations, developed the COC's surtitles. Originally, they were 35mm slides manually projected onto a medium-gray screen, 60 feet wide by 4 feet high, mounted above the stage. The standard format allowed two lines of text per slide (or title), with a maximum of 40 characters per line. They cost about $10 each, and, for that 1983 production of Elektra, there were about 800, half of which were so-called blackout titles that appeared between the readable ones.

However, it was a daunting task to photograph, develop, mount and number 800 slides (longer operas have proportionately more, of course), then assemble them in perfect order and the right way up in numerous boxes, which, in turn, required numbering and inserting into the projector in the correct sequence. Leberg soon moved to a computerized system with a digital projector.

With the price of digital projectors starting at about $30,000, computerized surtitles are often beyond the means of smaller opera companies. For that reason; slides are still in use, though almost all major houses generate theirs on computers using Microsoft PowerPoint. …

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Visual Aids: Despite Lingering Opposition, Surtitles Are an Integral Part of Staging Opera
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