Thursday 1 March 2007


Opera Magazine has long been anti-surtitles and the issue still bubbles under the surface, occasionally to rise up in the letters page. The current issue includes a letter from a foreign national pointing out that non-native English speakers find the surtitles at ENO immensely useful.

But even English speakers can find them useful. I can remember, back in the good old days, that comprehensibility was not always paramount. Conductors of the Mark Elder school always seemed (and still seem) inclined to give the orchestra their head, thus occluding the singers.

I first saw Twilight of the Gods on a very, very warm day at the Opera House in Manchester in 1974 (I think), the ENO production with Rita Hunter and Jean Cox, conducted by Reginald Goodall. Sitting in the Gods it was completely incomprehensible and for large chunks of time I had no idea what these people were singing about, though the singing itself was magnificent.

Later on, when I started taking my Mother to the opera, we found that the surtitles at the Royal Opera House were a boon. She was slightly deaf and found hearing the words very difficult, so for any new opera I welcomed the opportunity to take her to Covent Garden.

I have often wondered whether the critical attitude to surtitles might partly stem from the difficulty of seeing them when in the stalls (you have to lift your head). If you have spent your life hearing opera from the cheaper seats, then the surtitles are effortlessly in your view - a good argument for sitting higher up!

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