A word in your eye

The purists don't like it, but English National Opera is about to introduce surtitles. Sean Doran, the company's artistic director, explains why
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When Lilian Baylis founded English National Opera, or Sadler's Wells Opera as it was known in 1931, her aim was to make opera as accessible as possible. Today, accessibility remains a cornerstone of ENO's ethos. Yet it isn't just about singing in English any more.

When Lilian Baylis founded English National Opera, or Sadler's Wells Opera as it was known in 1931, her aim was to make opera as accessible as possible. Today, accessibility remains a cornerstone of ENO's ethos. Yet it isn't just about singing in English any more.

It is my view that, were Baylis alive today, she would have no hesitation in introducing surtitles at the London Coliseum. As the artistic director for ENO I have now made the decision to install them, and I believe that we are, in fact, honouring tradition rather than breaking with it.

Yet when I arrived at ENO in 2003, I was not an advocate of surtitles. The very thought of a sea of heads bobbing up and down from stage to surtitle to read what was being sung in my own language smacked of nannyism. Surtitling fundamentally contradicted my idea that opera is an intensely focused theatrical experience. I believed that itdashed the sense of spontaneity and engagement that I enjoyed about opera.

However, two things have since led me to reconsider. First, sitting night after night with our audience, I became aware that people were straining to hear some of the words. It is the natural consequence of singing in the language of the audience that they want and expect to hear every one. Not being able to hear even a few left people frustrated and ruined their enjoyment. Each night, this disengagement between auditorium and stage seemed like a series of little deaths.

There has hardly been a day in the past two years when I did not receive one or more letters from audience members imploring us to introduce surtitles. These letters argued that it would give "the greatest help and encouragement for the average member of the audience" as well as "greatly add to the enjoyment of the characterisation, wit and action". Almost all those who wrote in - some more than once - referred to glancing at surtitles.

Second, I began to test myself with English opera at other opera houses that used surtitles. I found that I only used them in my peripheral vision when I missed the odd word. I also found I was hearing the words better, and better understood passages of opera I thought were familiar. So surtitling expanded my knowledge of opera, acting as a "binding of sense".

And I realised that the state of original moral innocence in not offering surtitles at ENO was something that was turning destructively on us. Our resistance to surtitles was hermetic and exclusive. I also saw, that, for many in our audience, parts of our operas were becoming wordless, and this certainly was not any composer's intention.

I am at the helm of an opera company in the 21st century. Surtitling is a tool of our age, no less so than the motor car. No one would expect me today to arrive at work on a horse. However, surtitles stir warring passions. Some argue that the introduction of surtitles at ENO will mean that we will stop singing in English. This will not happen. Just as accessibility is one of our founding principles, so is singing in English. Alongside a commitment to English opera - not only to our house-composer Benjamin Britten, but also to Vaughan Williams, Purcell and Handel, and to new work, such as the new opera Gaddafi commissioned from Steve Chandra Savale of Asian Dub Foundation - singing in English remains the most powerful statement we make as the country's opera house.

Another argument against surtitles is the fear that standards of diction will fall. But our singers will continue to work with our music staff, voice coaches, guest conductors and directors to ensure that our commitment to diction continues to be the highest. Performing in our own language intensifies the engagement of the drama for both singers and audience. When listening to performances in English, where three out of five words can easily be understood, surtitling simply becomes a tool that gives the audience more understanding.

Hand in hand with surtitles as a measure of accessibility, affordability is another foundation on which ENO is built. We have traditionally offered seats at £10 or less. Over any season, 30,000 seats are available at this price. But we are taking this idea even further. With the support of our principal corporate sponsors, Sky and Artsworld, we are offering seats in the dress circle for £20. These are some of the best seats in the house and, across the season, 12,000 of them will be available.

I realise that not everyone will share my belief in surtitles. Therefore, we will have one or two performances of each production unsurtitled. But surtitles will help first-time audiences enter the opera world.

A veil of mystery will be lifted for our audience and, in my view, ENO productions in the future will be more memorable. Gone will be that unforgettable poetic line "Since there's no help, come, let us kiss and part". Now, it's all there in a glance.

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