Spelling It Out : Opera audiences may love following the plot on Supertitles but purists have other views

September 21, 1986|RANDY LEWIS | Randy Lewis is a Times staff writer.

The hottest addition to opera in the '80s is the use of translations projected above the stage to help audiences better understand productions sung in French, Italian, German, Russian and--yes--even English.

As opera's answer to subtitles in foreign-language films, these cue cards for audiences have several monikers: They're called Supertitles at New York City Opera and San Francisco Opera. Houston Grand Opera and Canadian Opera Company of Toronto have dubbed them Surtitles. At Pittsburgh Opera, they're known as OpTrans.

There are other, unofficial terms for capsulized translations of texts, which will first appear at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in January with New York City Opera's productions of Bizet's "Carmen" and Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."

"Terrific" is a typical term opera presenters have used to describe Supertitles, which, they say, are bolstering public interest in opera and, therefore, boosting ticket sales.

To others, a minority composed chiefly of performers, music critics and opera purists, Supertitles represent, as one noted opera conductor growled, an "abominable" compromise of the art form.

Supertitles, which are projected on a screen mounted above the theater stage, have proven to be exceptionally popular with the opera-going public. New York City Opera conducted an audience survey recently and found a 96% approval rate for Supertitles; officials at the San Francisco Opera say that mail is running nearly 200-to-1 in favor of the translations.

Since the Canadian Opera Company of Toronto began using its Surtitles in 1983, as an experiment inspired by the successful use of subtitles in public television broadcasts of foreign-language operas, the practice has been adopted by most opera houses in the United States.

The major exception is the venerable Metropolitan Opera in New York. "The Met does not have any plans to use Supertitles in the foreseeable future," says Met spokesman Gregory Hanlon.

But at New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Cincinnati Opera and numerous others around the country, the use of Supertitles is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

"I can think of no instance in which we wouldn't use Supertitles in the future," says Susan Woelzl, director of publicity for New York City Opera, which first brought Supertitles to the United States.

And at San Francisco Opera, which is now using Supertitles for every performance, communications associate Scott Horton says, "The party line at present is that we'll use Supertitles on every opera possible."

So what's to debate? The public loves them, the opposition is vastly outnumbered, and even prestigious European theaters such as the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden are opening their doors to Supertitles.

Advocates claim that Supertitles simply make opera more accessible to more people. They are quick to point out that language was never meant to be a barrier--that most operas were written for audiences that understood the language.

Further, Supertitles circumvent the problem of English-language productions that can suffer when rhyme and meter are literally lost in the translation. And finally, opera company officials maintain that those who don't wish to read Supertitles don't have to look at them.

"In North America, opera tradition is quite young," says Gunta Dreifelds, associate director of operations for the Canadian Opera Company. "Opera companies are always concerned with developing audiences. And in helping companies move away from the elitist approach to accessibility, Supertitles have been a great success."

Critics counter that opera presenters are subjugating the art form to ticket sales and that such boiled-down translations are tantamount to a Reader's Digest condensation of Shakespeare's works.

"As far as the aesthetics are concerned, it's abominable," says conductor Julius Rudel, who has conducted several opera productions with Supertitles in recent years. "In terms of practicality, they may be of some limited value.

"When performers are knocking themselves out to give a fully realized dramatic performance, trying to project subtleties such as a raised eyebrow, something inevitably gets lost if people keep looking up to read the Supertitles."

"Of course, the singers won't like it," says one arts administrator. "They have such fantastic egos that they can't stand the thought that somebody's eyes might be directed away from them for one second."

Stage director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle is one of the staunchest opponents of Supertitles and refuses to allow them in his productions.

"Ponnelle is very much a visual purist and feels that the distraction of losing visual continuity and subtlety is disruptive," says David Gockley, general director of Houston Grand Opera, which has mounted several of Ponnelle's stagings--all with Supertitles. "But he speaks five languages and the audience doesn't."

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