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May 10, 2009

Opera Subtitles

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I am girding my loins.

That's because on Friday I have to go see Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" at the Seattle Opera. In the movie "Amadeus" Emperor Joseph II tells Mozart that it was too long. Joe nailed it: it's a marathon performance.

Back in 1982 I saw Marriage at the San Francisco Opera. I looked over a plot synopsis a few times before I went, but couldn't keep enough of it straight to be able to follow the events on stage. A huge problem was that it was sung in Italian and there were no subtitles.

Fortunately, the Seattle Opera subtitles all its performances: without them I'd be lost every time I attended. This would be so even if the opera were in English. I lack the ability to fully understand sung words of any kind.

When subtitling first arrived, snobbery and elitism kicked in. Major houses would not deign to soil their reputations by allowing the lumpenproletariat, who are inexplicably ignorant of Italian, German and French, to actually follow the plots, such as they are in opera.

I'm not an opera fan and pay little attention to news about it. That, plus my laziness means I can't tell you if big-time houses such as New York's Metropolitan and the San Francisco have yielded to subtitles. Nor do I know if, say, German houses subtitle Italian operas.

Any opera mavens out there ready to come to the rescue on this?



posted by Donald at May 10, 2009


Opera subtitles started in Toronto and, yes, even the Met in New York now uses them. From what I hear they have dramtically increased ticket buying, for understandable (no pun intended) reasons.

Posted by: Thursday on May 10, 2009 12:58 PM

They have succumbed. The Hungarians too.

Posted by: j on May 10, 2009 1:44 PM

San Francisco has been using subtitles for well over a decade, maybe longer.

Don't worry about the plot of "The Marriage of Figaro". It's one of the world's greatest operas...if not THE greatest. If it's only decently sung, you should enjoy it without having the slightest idea what is going on. The music is that good.

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on May 10, 2009 1:52 PM

I saw Die Zauberfloete in Berlin and they had German to German subtitles up.

Posted by: A on May 10, 2009 2:47 PM

Subtitles are a great innovation in opera. That said, neither subtitling in two live performances, nor synopses nor direct study of the libretto has made Act IV of Figaro comprehensible to me. You've just got to go stream of consciousness and enjoy the music.

Posted by: Peculiar on May 10, 2009 5:12 PM

I saw The Force of Destiny in Berlin without subtitles. But there was vigorous booing when a job lot of Roman Catholic cardinals trundled across the stage on a fire engine, giving Nazi salutes.

P.S. CG is right - it's a marvellous opera, the M of F.

Posted by: dearieme on May 10, 2009 7:52 PM

The seat-back subtitle at the Met was paid by this guy:


Some of Pupu's most enjoyable moments came when she woke up in the middle of a long opera.

Posted by: Pupu on May 10, 2009 9:04 PM

Yep, sorta like "Yellow Submarine", just enjoy the pretty colors and music. The Skylight Opera goes farther and does all it's performances in English. If the titles bother anyone, they can ignore them. They do help make the art form more accessible to a lot of people. With so many companies going under, those extra audience members can be the difference between life and death for an opera company.

Posted by: Bradamante on May 10, 2009 9:43 PM

I recently watched a DVD of Alban Berg's Wozzeck. Having English words on the screen helped, but I wish they had subtitled the music instead!

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on May 11, 2009 1:21 AM

> to actually follow the plots, such as they are in opera.

And there's a major rub. I abhor opera (unlike my wife, but fortunately for me she has a friend who's also into it, so I don't get dragged along) but since I've lived in Germany I've found that the abiity to understand the words in other forms of classical vocal music, e.g. Schubert's Lieder, can be a positive disadvantage.

Posted by: Alan Little on May 11, 2009 4:47 AM

LOL at Pupu and Reg. So true in both cases.

I love subtitling at operas myself, and thought the objections to it were absurd -- who would object to subtitling at, say, foreign-language movies? I guess you were supposed to be already so familiar with the opera canon that you had no such need. Way to bring more fans into your favorite art form, fellas.

Back in the days of no-subtitles, I used to read summaries and librettos before attending an opera that was new to me. (So shoot me: I like knowing what's going on onstage.) Now I can skip all that. Also the subtitling helps me enjoy the performers' acting. If you don't know what the lines mean, much of the acting seems like a lot of cliche'd opera carrying-on. If you know what it is the characters are talking about, you're much more likely to get (and enjoy) why they're behaving as they're behaving.

Another nice recent innovation (that I may get around to blogging about) is the Met in HD -- Met Opera productions broadcast to movie theaters in Dolby sound and HD video. I've seen three presentations so far and -- don't let this get around -- I think I like the experience better than seeing Met productions live. Cheaper too, and the subtitling is excellent. More here:


The current set of productions is over, but they're starting up again in the fall.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 11, 2009 8:57 AM

The Met has offered subtitles in English and German for all performances for at least the last 10 years, I think. For the happy few who don’t need subtitles or find them to be distracting, they can be turned off. Hey, I’m a subtitle junkie myself. I even watch “The Wire” with subtitles.

Many of the German tourists attending the recent Ring Cycles at the Met watch with the German subtitles on, because the sound of the Orchestra is occasionally louder than the singing and the singers themselves sometimes can’t clearly articulate the words while reaching those high notes and being musical themselves.

I hope the Count Almaviva you’re seeing will be Mariusz Kwiecin, the Polish baritone who is tops in playing the Mozart rakes. I love Marriage of Figaro, but even with the greatest cast, I can’t wait for Act IV to end.

Posted by: CL on May 11, 2009 12:04 PM

O, my! Thank you, Michael!

Posted by: Pupu on May 11, 2009 4:00 PM

I have rarely been able to pick out the words even when an opera is sung in English. But anyway, in my unsophisticated way, I prefer NOT to understand them. They generally turn out to be as trivial as the words of any pop song, which detracts from the other-worldly sort of magic of the experience.

Posted by: Martin Auster on May 11, 2009 5:24 PM

"Nor do I know if, say, German houses subtitle Italian operas."

AIUI, European opera houses routinely perform operas in translation. Or at least they used to. For instance, when Tannhäuser was first performed in France in 1861, it was sung in French.

At least one major Italian opera was for a long time more often performed in its French translation, IIRC.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on May 11, 2009 6:30 PM

I have mixed feelings about subtitles in opera but my favorite story on the subject involves a performance of Tosca.

In the first act, at end of the beautiful love duet between Tosca and Cavaradossi, the jealous dark eyed Tosca asks her painter boyfriend who is painting a portrait of another woman (who has blue eyes), to paint the eyes black.

The translation in the subtitles read: "give her two black eyes", which produced hysterical laughter in the audience.

Not exactly Puccini's intent!

Posted by: jiska on May 12, 2009 1:46 AM

We call 'em surtitles here in Toronto. Projected way up at the top of a very high proscenium in the new opera house. It makes for a stiff neck when your seats are close to the stage as were mine last night (La Boheme). I've always found them very helpful yet easy to ignore if the mood dictated. But my neck says those seat back titles sound like an even better idea. Must be expensive though!

Posted by: Michael on May 13, 2009 12:53 PM

Saw Aida in Salzburg several years ago. The Festspielhaus had adopted subtitles. Trying to read subtitles in German while listening to yet another language sung was quite a challenge.

Posted by: CharleiK on May 14, 2009 10:20 PM

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