Read 'Em And Weep: Celebrating 35 Years Of Opera Supertitles

Jan 23, 2018
Originally published on January 29, 2018 5:50 pm

In 1983, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto tried a grand experiment. While the singers performed Elektra in German onstage, simultaneous translations in English were projected above the stage. These "supertitles," as they've come to be known, were quickly adopted at opera houses and are now an expected part of the opera-going experience.

The idea came from the company's artistic director, the late Lotfi Mansouri, who recalled in a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts interview that not everyone thought his idea was a good one.

"I got blasted," Mansouri said. "They called it the 'plague from Canada.' I had vulgarized opera, but I didn't give a damn because all of a sudden, the audience was involved."

The person Mansouri hired to get them involved was Sonya Friedman, who had written subtitles for a Metropolitan Opera television broadcast. The famous soprano Beverly Sills, who served as general manager of the New York City Opera at the time, saw Friedman's supertitles and became an instant fan.

"She decided that she was going to have titles for every one of the foreign language operas at New York City Opera," Friedman says. "And she called me and hired me for that season and I had to do a lot of operas."

Gunta Dreifelds, Friedman's assistant on Elektra, says the projected translations caused "an explosion in the opera world."

"Within six months, over 100 companies were using some system of projected titles," Dreifelds says. She recalls the primitive system they used — projectors and 35-millimeter glass-mounted slides — was like a "glorified home slideshow." Friedman and Dreifelds could only use 40 characters per slide because the screen was so small. Even today, not every word in the opera's libretto gets translated.

"You figure out the character and you figure out the plot, and then you figure out the meaning of what these people would want to say," Friedman explains. "I'm very free with the translations, but I'm true to the to the sense of what the people are singing."

Before supertitles, going to the opera required a bit of homework. Marc Scorca, president of the nonprofit organization Opera America, says when he was a kid he had to read a plot synopsis or even a libretto beforehand, because most of the works were in foreign languages.

"It was quite a confusing experience that required of the audience member an absolute determination to figure it out," Scorca says. "There were many people who would not enjoy going to the opera if it was such a mystery and so difficult to figure out what the plot was about."

Jackie Vick, the executive director of Intermountain Opera in Bozeman, Mont., says supertitles are one reason some people drive 400 miles to see the company's productions.

"I think it's one of the best things that could have happened to opera because it opened the door to everyone," Vick says. "It broke down what people considered a language barrier. So people don't have to feel like they need to know it before they come. They can enjoy the show while it's happening."

Thirty-five years later, opera companies around the world use supertitles, but have long since ditched the low-tech slideshow system. Supertitles are now basically PowerPoint presentations. It's cheap and it only takes two people to run, but one venerable company in New York resisted for more than a decade.

"Well, the Metropolitan Opera didn't want titles," Friedman says. "James Levine was the musical director and he felt that it would very much compromise the stage, and also he didn't want to look at them."

But, when a patron donated money to have supertitle screens installed on the back of every seat, Levine finally relented.

Friedman is now in her 80s and semi-retired. She still licenses her supertitles to companies across the country and loves the fact that they appeal to more than just audiences.

"The singers absolutely adored them because they were getting a response from the audience to the tragedy, to the comedy," she says. "They were getting feedback they never got before from the audience, because the audience, of course, understood."

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Thirty-five years ago tonight, the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto changed the way audiences experience opera. While the singers performed in German on stage, simultaneous translations in English were projected above the stage. These supertitles, as they've come to be known, are now an expected part of the opera-going experience. Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Jackie Vick is the executive director of tiny Intermountain Opera in Bozeman, Mont. She's one of three full-time employees. And she says supertitles are one reason some people drive 400 miles to see the company's productions.

JACKIE VICK: I think it's one of the best things that could have happened to opera because it opened the door to everyone. It broke down what people considered a language barrier, so people don't have to feel like they need to know it before they come. They can enjoy the show while it's happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in Italian).

LUNDEN: Before supertitles, going to the opera required a bit of homework, says Marc Scorca, the president of Opera America, a nonprofit support organization. When he was a kid going to the opera, he had to read a plot synopsis or even a libretto beforehand because most of the works were in foreign languages.

MARC SCORCA: It was quite a confusing experience that required of the audience member an absolute determination to figure it out. And it was clear that there were many people who would not enjoy going to the opera if it was such a mystery and so difficult to figure out what the plot was about.

LUNDEN: In 1983, the late Lotfi Mansouri, who was artistic director of the Canadian Opera Company, saw a subtitled broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera's production of "Elektra."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing in German).

LUNDEN: He decided to try titles live in the theater. The innovation got mixed reviews, as Mansouri recalled in a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOTFI MANSOURI: I got blasted. They called it the plague from Canada. I had vulgarized opera. But I didn't give a damn because all of a sudden, the audience was involved.

LUNDEN: The person he hired to get them involved was Sonya Friedman, who'd also done the Met TV broadcast. And one of those who saw Friedman's supertitles was American diva Beverly Sills. At the time, Friedman says, Sills was running New York City Opera.

SONYA FRIEDMAN: And she decided that she was going to have titles for every one of the foreign language operas at New York City Opera. And she called me and hired me for that season. And I had to do a lot of operas.

GUNTA DREIFELDS: Basically, it caused an explosion in the opera world.

LUNDEN: Gunta Dreifelds assisted Friedman on "Elektra" in Toronto and continues to write titles for the Canadian Opera.

DREIFELDS: Within six months, over 100 companies were using some system of projected titles.

LUNDEN: At first it was a kind of primitive system. They used slide projectors.

DREIFELDS: We used 35-mm glass-mounted slides. They had glass-mounted so they wouldn't melt from the lamp and the projectors. It's a glorified home slideshow.

LUNDEN: And Dreifelds and Friedman say they could only use 40 characters because the screen was only so big. So Sonya Freedman says she doesn't translate every word in the libretto.

FRIEDMAN: You figure out the character. And you figure out the plot. And then you figure out the meaning of what these people would want to say. And so I'm very free with the translations. But I'm true to the sense of what the people are singing

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER NEW YORK CITY OPERA: RIGOLETTO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Italian).

LUNDEN: Opera companies have long since ditched the slideshow. Supertitles are now basically PowerPoint presentations. It's cheap. It only takes two people to run. But one company resisted for more than a decade.

FRIEDMAN: Well, the Metropolitan Opera didn't want titles. James Levine was the musical director, and he felt that it would very much compromise the stage. And also, he didn't want to look at them.

LUNDEN: A patron donated money to have supertitles screens installed on the back of every seat. And Levine relented. Sonya Friedman is now in her 80s and semi-retired. She still licenses her supertitles to companies across the country. And she says she loves the fact that they appeal to more than just audiences.

FRIEDMAN: The singers absolutely adored them because they were getting a response from the audience to the tragedy, to the comedy. They were getting feedback that they never got before from the audience because the audience, of course, understood.

LUNDEN: Without having to do their homework. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, ""LIVE FROM LINCOLN CENTER" NEW YORK CITY OPERA: RIGOLETTO")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Italian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.