Sunday, July 10, 2022

The Art of the Subtitle

Subtitles are relatively new to opera but have long been used for foreign language films. They can be confusing as you look at the action and are trying to read at the same time but also very helpful. The aim is to translate the sense of the dialog not necessarily the exact words and in opera it is often a distillation of repeated words.

As a destination for tourists as well as dedicated opera fans, the Santa Fe Opera introduced subtitles early on. In what now seems another age Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia came here together for the opera every summer. The house has a capacity of over 2,000 seats. While the stage was protected, the roof and sides of the seating were part open and people used to get soaked during monsoon season, which is July and August, so they covered overhead and put up baffles on the side to protect against the winds.

At the Santa Fe Opera In front of each seat there is now a little box for the subtitles which can be turned on. What goes into creating these words that come across the screen turns out not to be as simple as you might think. But first some history.

I remember the days when my father insisted that I read the synopsis before we went to any opera. According to an NPR article published a week ago, subtitles, also called supertitles, were first used in 1983 by the Canadian Opera Company for a performance of Elektra in German translating it into English. It was, at that time a glorified slide show of images projected above the stage with the possibility of only 45 letters. Beverly Sills the famous soprano and then director of the New York City Opera became an immediate fan and adopted them for her house.

Like all new technology people fought it at first feeling that subtitles distracted the audience from the music and action on stage. The director and conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, James Levine, said a few years after the City opera adopted them that it would be over his dead body that he would have them in his house. In 1992, however, a patron donated the funds for subtitles mounted on seat backs and Levine gave in.

I learned more from an article by Mark Tiarks in Pasatiempo, The New Mexican newpaper’s weekly culture magazine. The system used at the Metropolitan Opera as well as in Santa Fe was sketched out in 1992 on napkins at Maria’s, a local Mexican restaurant we frequent, by Patrick Markle who was the production director at the Santa Fe Opera together with two Metropolitan technical employees. It was only adopted here in 1999 and in 2019 an even more advanced system was installed by in-house personnel.

Premiere of "The Barber of Seville", Photo by Curtis Brown

The translating, editing and technical side are quite complex. In Santa Fe the process takes five on-site individuals but starts with one person, Christopher Bergen, who is fluent in Italian, German, French and Russian. He translates every opera into English. Then, since we have a large Hispanic population, someone else translates the English into the Spanish option available on the display.

Bergen does not try to give a word for word translation, avoiding issues like rhyme to give just the gist of what is happening on stage. A composer and librettist might repeat a phrase over and over again and it might only appear on your screen once or twice. He needs to find English language equivalents for jokes, and they must be perfectly timed. If the punchline appears in the subtitle too soon, and the audience starts laughing before the singer comes to the actual words, the latter almost always shows how disconcerting it is.

Most difficult is when several performers are singing different words at the same time. There is neither room on the screen nor do you want the audience to be reading rather than watching the staging which can be most entertaining. After the translation has been done and honed a techy takes over and formats for the software required. Two more members of the team cue the titles to appear during the performance. During dress rehearsals the team makes any adjustments that may not have been accounted for.

We recently attended the opening night at the Santa Fe Opera of Stephen Barlow’s new production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville. It was an incredible performance with excellent singers and a great deal of comedy. I realized how much directors must care about subtitles because their audience depends on them for the success of their production. The subtitles in Santa Fe’s Barber certainly helped create the gales of perfectly timed laughter from the audience.

From "The Barber of Seville"

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