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'Tristan' und 'Macbeth'

December 26, 1987

How wonderful to have a serious effort at a first-class opera company in Los Angeles! And to see that there is at last serious backing for the enterprise. I attended "Macbeth" and "Tristan und Isolde," and they were worth it. Nevertheless, there is one lamentable feature of both productions: supertitles.

Not the use of supertitles, which I guess everyone can appreciate, since even texts sung in their original English are rarely decipherable when sung.

Rather, what is objectionable is the deplorable wording that was flashed overhead, wording worse than the subtitles of foreign-language movies that reduce even the usually low-level dialogue of most film scripts to sawdust.

The supertitles in these productions reeked of "translationese," that made-up, silly language that irritates when it doesn't exasperate.

When, for one example, King Mark reproaches Tristan, whom we have just seen caught in flagrante at the end of Act II, he says in the supertitle that he has been "wounded in his most vulnerable sensibilities."

That is a vile way of saying he has been hurt to the core of his heart, or his being, etc., at least something to that effect. There were many more painful, or murky, phrasings like that in the two productions.

Composers worry about words; surely the words they finally do set to music ought to be treated with some care. No wonder most people laughed at libretto redactions: Miserable translations make opera seem a form of drama even more preposterous than it usually is.


Professor of English

and Modern Literature


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