Opera chief backs displaying words for audience

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THE ENGLISH National Opera could be on the verge of introducing surtitles on screen at its performances.

The idea seems bizarre. While the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden uses surtitles during productions of foreign languages, to have English- language opera routinely "translated" into English would imply that the diction, intelligibility and audibility of ENO singers are not sufficient to enable audiences to follow the action.

But if the ENO does have surtitles (seen above the stage) it would be going against its very raison d'etre, which is to stage operas in English precisely because they can be understood by English-speaking audiences.

Tomorrow night at the ENO's home, the London Coliseum, the company will stage its first public debate on the move. It will be addressed by ENO's general director, Nicholas Payne, and will include contributions from the ENO music director, Paul Daniel, opera and theatre director, Jonathan Miller and the singer Lesley Garrett. One ENO insider said the singers felt surtitles "came between" them and the audience. Ms Garrett is likely to put forward this view.

One option being examined is that used at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where the text is not above the stage but on a tiny screen on the seat in front, allowing the spectator to decide whether to read them.

Mr Payne is clearly attracted to the idea of surtitles. He wrote in the ENO's Friends' journal: "This is the subject which appears to preoccupy those who write to ENO more than any other ... We set out our stall to make opera accessible ... yet people complain that they cannot hear what we say."

But he acknowledges there are problems, the main one being synchronisation. "What could be less theatrical," he asked, "than the audience laughing at the punch line before the singer has delivered it?" He also claims surtitles are "the lazy solution", because they undermine the need to improve singers' diction and orchestral balance and encourage mental laxness in the audience.

Nevertheless, while he was head of the Royal Opera, Mr Payne agreed to English surtitles for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain, because it had "an exceptionally dense orchestral score". Whether he will now bring surtitles to the English National Opera should become clearer tomorrow.