Wednesday 22 November 2006

Sense, Surtitles and Sullivan

We're off to see ENO's new production of The Gondoliers on Friday, which set me to thinking about issues of surtitles and G&S. Generally I'm a great believer in surtitles.

They have transformed my opera going when the opera is in a foreign language. Partly that's because I never quite do my home-work and benefit immensely from a prompt telling me what the characters are saying. This is particularly true of the longer operas such as Wagner. My first Wagner experiences were very mixed, due to the sheer length and the inability to hear the singers - very definitely Rossini's Good moment s and bad quarters of an hour.

And of course, these early Wagner experiences were in English, sung by ENO. And it was generally impossible to hear the words. So I am sympathetic to using surtitles in some English language productions.

But surely G&S is about communication. Sullivan, sometimes prompted by Gilbert, went to great lengths to ensure that the words were audible. And several generations of G&S specialists have ensured that they are, even in a barn like the London Coliseum. Some of these specialists, like Valerie Masterson, went on to sing in serious opera. But the training stuck, I can still remember Masterson's Marschillin at the Coliseum where you heard nearly every word - in a role that typically sopranos get over 1 in 3 if you are lucky.

So on Friday I am going to do my best to ignore the surtitles and concentrate on the singers. If they can't project the words then, frankly, they shouldn't be singing Gilbert and Sullivan

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