Classical and Opera Features

Loss in translation? Opera surtitles and the right to choose



Is coronavirus lockdown the perfect time to learn a language for the sake of opera? Simon Thomas recalls the introduction of surtitles and asks whether translated opera is, after all, better for them

The London Coliseum, home of English National Opera

The London Coliseum, home of English National Opera (Photo: Smith of Derby)

In 2006 English National Opera introduced something new at the London Coliseum and, like most innovations, it had a mixed response. It was the introduction of surtitles, the words projected above the proscenium arch so that audiences can more easily follow what the performers are singing. What made it controversial is that it undermined the company’s whole reason for existence, which was to bring opera to a UK audience by performing all works in English.

If the words are not intelligible anyway, then why bother translating to the home language? Most singers have or want international careers, so having to relearn a part in English could just be another burden on an already very demanding profession. Possibly, though, working in English helps nurture new local talent, which ENO tends to be better at than their rivals down the road in Bow Street.

The Royal Opera House had been using surtitles for a couple of decades by then, but that was a more defensible decision, as all operas are performed in their original language, which means you could be hearing French, Italian, Russian, German, Czech or any other number of languages when attending. Having spent the first decade or more of my operagoing seeing operas at the London houses without the aid of surtitles, I found it a really helpful contribution to my understanding of the works I was seeing.

I was also one of those crying out for surtitles at ENO because, although the language used might be more familiar, it’s almost impossible to understand more than some of the words opera singers sing (especially true of sopranos for some reason). This has been blamed by some people on declining standards of diction and projection but I believe the distortion caused by the singing techniques makes opera really difficult to fully hear and understand anyway. It’s true actually of most kinds of singing; how many people have experienced surprise at hearing what the words of their favourite pop or rock song actually are?

“My preference has always been for opera in its original language. This meant in the old days that you had to do your homework before attending, so that you knew what the hell was going on.”

So, ENO’s mission to make opera more accessible to local audiences (worthy in itself) by presenting their repertoire in English translation is, to my mind, dodgy from the start. It has a marketing value but doesn’t always fulfil its brief, as audiences still leave not knowing quite what they’ve heard. (Incidentally, there was a controversy at Covent Garden the first time surtitles were used for an English language opera; it was Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, I believe.)

One singer at ENO was particularly vocal about the change. Baritone Andrew Shore was and is renowned for his great diction and comic timing. When I interviewed him a few years ago he told me that it was really frustrating (this was some time after surtitles had become a fixed feature at the Coliseum) to have the words preceding the delivery and pre-empting the joke. It’s a fair criticism but, to be fair, the buffo roles Shore often plays tend to have more sympathetic scoring in order to make jokes easier to get.

My preference has always been for opera in its original language. This meant in the old days that you had to do your homework before attending, so that you knew what the hell was going on. Opera synopses are often mystifying enough as it is. An exception to this, for me, was one of the first productions I saw in the theatre: Wagner’s Ring Cycle, performed by ENO in the mid 1970s with the stellar cast of Rita Hunter, Alberto Remedios, Norman Bailey et al. As a youngster (a weird one, I’ll confess), I had listened to the records of the production endlessly, in particular Siegfried which I can still sing great chunks of (very badly), in Andrew Porter’s spectacular translation. For some years I only knew the opera in English, although I’ve long since become used to it in the original German.

It’s a matter of choice but opera just doesn’t sound good in English (unless that’s the language it’s written in). Italian and French in particular lose so much but so does German, Russian and Czech. You don’t have to have an intimate knowledge of any of these languages to appreciate the musicality of the original. English flattens out the vigour and sharpness of Italian in particular, rendering the words dull and mundane. There are even nuances within original versions. I know that my colleague Keith McDonnell can’t abide Verdi’s French operas (Don Carlos, Les vêpres sicilienne) in Italian, for instance, although I’m not quite as hardline as him on this.

“I would still defend ENO’s right to perform in English, and with surtitles. If it opens it out to people nervous of foreign languages, so much the better.”

Loss in translation can be even greater in theatre than in opera. The English are notoriously bad at foreign languages and we do rather expect everyone to come to us. Performances from overseas companies in their own language are still reasonably rare, even in these days of surtitles, and they’re not to everyone’s taste. But pick any of the great playwrights – Moliere, Goldoni, Ibsen, Chekov – and I’d say you gain so much from hearing them or reading them in the original.

I learned to read Norwegian and Danish, in order to appreciate Ibsen fully and it was a revelation. I got so much more from plays that I thought I knew and understood well once I was able to read them in Dano-Norsk (the written language of Ibsen’s time). One play in particular that I had never really understood in English translation was Peer Gynt, but in the original everything falls into place. It’s a great poetic epic, written in driving regular verse which, in my view, has never been successfully translated.

Maybe it’s more obvious with a verse drama but it’s also true of Ibsen’s later social plays. His dramas are not just about meaning; he was a poet and his use of language – its sound, rhythms and nuances – is of great importance. To an extent content is form as much as ideas. For the same reason I think that language in opera is important as well. It may be a bit harder work to listen to, you may even have to do some preparation in advance, but the effort is paid off when hearing libretti sung in their original languages. You don’t have to be fluent in another language but a working knowledge helps appreciate the composer/librettists’ intentions more fully.

Of course, not everyone has the time or inclination to learn new languages. There again, many of us have a bit more time on our hands at the moment. Being multilingual is not essential to appreciating opera but having a sensitivity to the language of a work adds to the richness and expressiveness of the repertoire. I would still defend ENO’s right to perform in English, and with surtitles. We can then choose how we experience opera and, if it opens it out to people nervous of foreign languages, so much the better.


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