Ever since 1983, when Lotfi Mansouri introduced Surtitles to the North American opera scene during the Canadian Opera Company's production of Richard Strauss's Elektra, the battle has raged on about just how much audiences benefit from the use of these projected English-language translations. Most of the arguments against Surtitles (including James Levine's fatuous "over my dead body" approach to the subject) seem rather silly when one considers that, five years after their debut in Toronto, Surtitles have established a solid foothold in opera houses throughout North America, Israel, Great Britain, Australia and many cities in Europe.
"We took surveys here at City Opera and listened very carefully to what our public was telling us," notes Beverly Sills, who introduced Surtitles to Lincoln Center. "When some man writes in saying that he usually bought four seats but, because of how much he enjoys Surtitles, he has purchased 27 tickets to performances by the New York City Opera this season, you can rest assured that that man is going to get Surtitles up the wahzoo! And when you receive a 37 percent overall increase in attendance, try multiplying that by the amount of money every percentage point means and you'll understand why the New York City Opera is debt-free for the first time in its history."
Although some operatic stalwarts insist that these titles distract audiences from the singers, my own feeling is that, during many a stagnant moment and shoddy performance, they provide a welcome relief from what is happening onstage. Still others claim that Surtitles have led to sloppy diction on the part of many singers and lazy audiences who don't want to do their homework (as if today's operagoers had enough time in their lives for such careful study). Some go so far as to predict that Surtitles will bring about the fall of operatic civilization as we know it!
They're absolutely full of shit. The tiny percentage of purists who claim that Surtitles undermine the appreciation of delicate nuances in character and music are severely outnumbered by the bulk of the audience (including many music critics) who have now embraced the concept that the aural, intellectual and visual elements of any performance can and should be appreciated simultaneously. When that perversely wonderful phenomenon occurs, the average operagoer receives a much stronger return on his entertainment dollar and, with tickets prices being what they are, I think he's damned well entitled to it!
As a result, in cities ranging from Toronto to Tulsa and from Detroit to Denver, audiences are learning that opera can be an interactive theatrical experience. Those who attended Wagner's Ring in Seattle and San Francisco enjoyed astonishing levels of dramatic comprehension and theatrical cohesiveness in an otherwise convoluted and befuddling 18 hours of Norse mythology. In Los Angeles, the audience for Tristan und Isolde (which might otherwise have fled the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion during the first intermission of Wagner's lengthy opera) remained in its seats for five solid hours. Thanks to Surtitles, Houston Grand Opera's production of Cosi Fan Tutte was transformed into an electrically-charged piece of sexual comedy; even Bellini's Norma made sense to audiences in Texas.
LESS THAN THE BEST
If I continue to attack the Metropolitan Opera for its refusal to embrace Surtitles, it's because Met audiences (who pay increasingly steep prices for their tickets) are routinely being cheated out of a decent operatic experience by James Levine's pompous artistic policy (a point which was made blazingly clear earlier this spring). On Saturday, March 12, the Met's production of Ariadne auf Naxos was televised live to Europe and the Soviet Union (viewers in the United States Japan, Poland, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the Netherlands watched a delayed telecast). The first time a cultural event had ever been broadcast live from the USA to the USSR (where Soviet television officials estimated 180 million viewers) the Russian audience -- when combined with viewers in Italy, West Germany, Great Britain and Austria -- helped comprise the largest audience ever assembled for opera.
Friends who watched the telecast in the United States raved about the production and how easy it was to understand the stage action (thanks to the titles on their TV screen) but, had they been seated in the Metropolitan Opera House, I fear their reactions might have been much less enthusiastic. Despite the presence of an all-star cast and James Levine's superb work in the pit, the audience at the performance of Ariadne auf Naxos which I attended spent most of its evening in the dark. Regardless of some fine singing from Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, James King and Tatiana Troyanos, that audience could not have followed Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto to save its life.
The irony is that, of all the operas which qualify as brilliant pieces of musical theatre, Ariadne auf Naxos (with its constant asides, backstage chatter, and theatrical in-jokes) demands to be understood by its audience. What the Met delivered, instead, was some very respectable singing in a production that was as dramatically dull as dishwater. I'm sure I'm not the only member of its audience who felt cheated.
TAKE A TIP FROM TORONTO
Several weeks later, when I attended the opening night of the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos (with sets and costumes handsomely designed by Wolfram and Amrei Skalicki) it was hard to believe I was witnessing a performance of the same opera I had seen at the Met. If one were to compare the two productions for musicianship, audience appeal and theatrical validity, the Met's Ariadne (despite its appeal to operatic starfuckers) would end up eating Toronto's dust. And with good reason.
Thanks to COC's Surtitles, the energy which the audience was able to send back across the footlights (through its enthusiastic responses to each and every one of the opera's musical turns and dramatic twists) sparked the cast to achieve a new and enhanced level of performance communication. Indeed, the audience's reaction was so intensely on the mark that one would have thought the performance was a sharply-honed production of a hit Broadway musical.
Soprano Elizabeth Connell was a regal Ariadne; tenor William Johns a steadfast Bacchus. Mezzo-soprano Judith Forst offered as impassioned a portrayal of the Composer as one could ever hope to witness while conductor Christian Badea maintained a tight balance between his instrumentalists and the tightly-woven ensemble moving about the stage under Lotfi Mansouri's astute direction.
The major hit of the evening was soprano Tracy Dahl's first Zerbinetta -- a phenomenal artistic triumph for this tiny young singer who, last season, stole the San Francisco Opera's production of Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann right out from under Placido Domingo's feet. Dahl's Zerbinetta was a naughty baby doll whose spicy cascades of coloratura never got in the way of a brilliant theatrical characterization; one of those landmark performances that will not only be treasured for years to come but could easily make a major talent like Kathleen Battle look like a tired old has-been.
If Bruce Crawford and James Levine can stop playing ostrich long enough to take their heads out of the sand and face reality, there's a lesson to be learned here. Or am I dreaming the impossible dream?
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 9, 1988.