Supertitles, Comedy and Diction in Opera

by Barry Drogin

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Thomas Ades' "Powder Her Face" has been perceived by other audiences as very funny. However, because of:

The particular presentation I saw worked against allowing an audience to laugh. Given a better orchestra, better singers, a more intimate setting and no supertitles, I might have really enjoyed the piece.

Comedy is about timing. Even if the composer has the talent to have comedy timing built into the work, the use of supertitles violates this timing, keeps the audiences' eyes shifting back and forth from singer to flies, and generally intrudes. If the supertitles themselves are funny (commenting on the action, or obviously mistranslated, or some such), then the audience may laugh at the supertitles, but in a small chamber opera, they simply interfere.

A few nights later I saw Paul Rudnick's "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told." No program notes, no supertitles (of course), and very, very funny. Go to your TV and turn on the captions feature, and see if it doesn't make Saturday Night Live less amusing. It's a hard test, because usually only the new and unfamiliar is funny, and you can't know in advance whether you would have found it funny.

For works in foreign languages that get laughs, see how the audience is reacting to the timing of the supertitles, not the delivery of the singer. The singer seems to be putting all this effort into acting for no reason, since the audience is always a few beats ahead or behind. It's a strange world, and I'd rather have brilliant translations with good diction in smaller venues. On Broadway, comedy gets laughs without supertitles.

It doesn't matter if it is in a large venue. I have heard a Britten opera (Gloriana) performed by the ENO at the Met and couldn't understand a word, and a different Britten opera (Billy Budd) performed by the Met Opera and got everything. The Met House is about as big as they come. Good singers with good diction who care about being understood will be understood. In the case of "Powder Her Face," I found that I could understand what they said, but found it difficult keeping myself from reading the supertitles anyway, especially if I missed a line (I missed lines at "The Most Fabulous Story...", too, it happens).

Personally, I'd vote for excellent singable translations, written by talented people (or teams). I'm even considering doing my next opera in simultaneous translations (I did this for the epilogue to "Love and Idols", which is in Hebrew and English).

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007