Like many revolutions, the Supertitle explosion began innocently enough - at Canadian Opera in Toronto in 1984, where then-general director Lotfi Mansouri first projected simultaneous libretto translations above the proscenium during an opera performance.
His innovation turned out to be the shot heard round the operatic world.Within a year Supertitles were being used everywhere; and at present, almost every company in the English-speaking world is using them to clarify operatic plots while singers perform in a work's original language. (Most European companies present opera only in their own languages.)
Supertitles are the first major breakthrough in many years that has increased operatic attendance by two-digit percentages. In the case of Utah Opera, in the first year titles were used (1985) subscriptions soared by 30 percent, and many performances are now sellouts.
Titles have occasioned great controversy pro and con among operatic specialists and aficionados. Those in favor delight in the increased understanding they offer; those against decry the split attention, the up-and-down movement of the head, which presumably dispels the dreamworld to which opera lovers are supposed to be dispatched by the spell of the music.
But it's doubtful that opera companies will ever willingly sacrifice to artistic niceties the kind of commercial success Supertitles have generated.
Projected titles have "helped develop the audiences for opera in North America," said Mansouri in a recent Opera News dedicated to the subject. Utah Opera's late general director Glade Peterson went even further, saying that titles had saved the future of opera in America.
"It is impossible to calculate the boost titles give to ticket sales, but there is no question they do exactly that," said Ardis Krainik, general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago. "(They) are here to stay."
Such attitudes go far to dispel opera's reputation for elitism, and reduce the unreasonable demands for prior interest and personal knowledge that have heretofore led the uncommitted first-time viewer to just give up and not come back to the opera after a disappointing first try.
One needs no such crutch as titles for symphonic music, where the mind is free to make whatever associations it will, limited only by the imagination of the listener.
But at the opera it's clear that a musical play is going on, and few like to be left with only pantomimic indications of the jokes or gripping drama unfolding before them. Of course you should have read the libretto before going, but few will do so, and even then you don't remember it all. Comprehension of opera performed in English usually falls far short, because of poor diction or fast action. Indeed, audiences have asked for Supertitles above operas with English libretto.
Do not expect to see Supertitles in the near future at the Metropolitan Opera, where music director James Levine is known to be adamantly opposed. Met general manager Hugh Southern cited two major objections - the scale of the house, which would separate the titles unreasonably from the stage action, and the perception that enjoying opera is not necessarily grounded in a close understanding, line by line, of the libretto.
In a sampling of attitudes across the country, Opera News uncovered the following quotes:
General director James W. Wright of Opera Carolina noted the increased awareness and appreciation they foster, especially among young audiences. "Titles have liberated companies to do unusual repertory," said Robert Heuer, general manager of Greater Miami Opera. "Projected titles have been great for American audiences to make them feel less alienated from this supposedly foreign art form," said singer Katherine Ciesinski.
"If (titles) are there, they must be as deeply considered as every other aspect of the production - music, design, staging, whatever," said Stephen Wadsworth of Skylight Opera Theater. "A serious, integrated production has nothing to fear from good projected titles."
Utah Opera-goers are firmly committed to Super-titling, as an informal audience canvass indicated at a performance of "Don Giovanni" in May.
Tim Geertsen brought his parents, Bob and Linda, for their Mother's Day and Father's Day presents. It was the first time at the opera for any of them, and they were loving it. "We wanted to come when we heard there would be translation," said Tim. "That made us brave enough to try it."
"Without the titles I would be lost," said Linda. "I thought I would be lost anyway, but the plot isn't hard to follow."
Jerry and Ursula Hanson sit high in what he calls the "nose-bleeding" section of the theater, but they can hear the beautiful music, and with the titles can follow the plot. They went first to Utah Opera's "Rigoletto," which they loved, and came back for more. "In Boise they sing everything in English, but few artists sing really intelligible English," he said. "Supertitles are great."
Ruth and Ernest Wolfert are German-born Americans, he from Hanover, she from Lubeck - opera lovers of 40 years' standing, and they are thrilled with Supertitles. "In Germany everything is sung in German," said Ruth, "and we are not used to opera in Italian. Without the titles we would not understand. When we lived in Wisconsin, we always read the libretto before going, but it was still difficult to understand the plots. The Supertitles are far better."
Katie Mercier's and Janie Glover's whole operatic experience is with Utah Opera. "Some people say the titles distract, but not for us," said Katie. "It only takes an instant to read a title, then your eyes go right back to the stage. We understand so much better than we used to."
Bob Darger said "Supertitles are the only way to go," and his wife Frances, a violinist in the Utah Symphony, agreed, "Supertitles have changed my whole operatic life." "They are great," said Paul Flandro, "but they are a little too small for people with poor eyesight."
Walter Rudolph, program director of KBYU-FM, said, "I am in favor of Supertitles, though perhaps I should be against them, because I don't like subtitles on television movies that disappear into the background. But Supertitles are high above the proscenium, they don't cover the screen, you don't have to look unless you want. When you read the titles, you realize how much you have been missing. Supertitles make a lot of sense."
San Francisco is home to an opera audience of longer standing and more sophistication than Utah's, from which one might expect more reservation about titles. But few objections were voiced by audience members at a recent performance of "Die Walkuere"; and, surprisingly, those few were from the younger folk rather than mature operagoers.
Bob Williams has been coming to San Francisco Opera for 30 years, reading the libretto before each performance. Yet he takes readily to Supertitles, which he can read in three or four seconds. "They are especialy good for the young people," he said, "give them a better introduction. And if I don't want to see them I can shut my mind out."
Pam Ernst, a young operagoer, declared herself "ambivalent" about titles. "I don't speak German, so I'm glad to know what's going on, but aesthetically I'm not sure if they are an advantage," she said. Nonetheless, she doubts she would eliminate them if she could.
Laura McCarty and Todd Branwell, having a date at the opera, have only seen three or four operas, but Todd has a certain built-in resistance to the titles. "I think it cheapens and commercializes the opera a little, you think of subtitles on a foreign film," he said. "Supertitles demand less of the operagoer than before."
Mr. and Mrs. Zak Taylor subscribed to San Francisco Opera last year for the first time, partly because of Supertitles. "It's easier to understand," he said, "and they do not distract, so high above the proscenium."
"The operas have good stories," said Mrs. Taylor. "Our 9-year-old has asked to come to the opera, because she can follow it now."
Barbara Casey of Sausalito and Barbara Reynolds of Sacramento both felt Supertitles are "the only way to go." "But they are a little scanty in what they say, we could stand even more explanation," said Reynolds.