Operas in English to get explanations... in English

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The Independent Online
THEY FORM the English National Opera. They sing every performance in English to underline their philosophy that opera should be understood by their audience.

The only problem is that it seems the audience sometimes can't understand a word of what is being sung.

Now the new head of the company is considering introducing surtitles - the words being sung on stage will be reproduced on a screen. And the favoured solution is for airline-style small screens on the seat in front.

Nicholas Payne, who joined the ENO this year as general director from the Royal Opera House, where he was opera director, has admitted that audiences simply can't make out the English words when a soprano or tenor enunciates them.

In the past the ENO has avoided surtitles, partly because some people would argue that, if the English version is unclear, the operas might as well be put on in their original language; and the company would thus lose its raison d'etre.

But while Mr Payne is not contemplating performances in other languages, he is examining the prospect of surtitles. One option is that used at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where surtitles are 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 said: "This is the subject which appears to preoccupy those who write to ENO more than any other. It is an issue which we cannot, should not, avoid. We set out our stall to make opera accessible, we perform in English so that our operas can be understood, yet people complain that they cannot hear what we say." He added: "I cannot deny that there are operas where too much of the text is hard to understand ... Not just the big ensembles and concerted passages in 19th-century opera ... But in much of late-19th and 20th-century opera - especially once composers regularly employ triple woodwind, the richness and density of the orchestral sound militates against understandable text."

But as Mr Payne acknowledges in the ENO's house journal, there are problems with surtitles, the main one being synchronisation.

"What could be less theatrical," he asks, "than the audience laughing at the punch line before the singer has delivered it? This happens frequently with surtitled Mozart. Yet even I who deplore such practice have to acknowledge the palpable increase in the audience's concentration since Wagner was surtitled at Covent Garden."

He also claims that surtitles are "the lazy solution - lazy because they undermine the need to improve singers' diction and orchestral balance ... lazy too because they encourage mental laziness in the audience."

Nevertheless, while he was at the Royal Opera, Mr Payne agreed to surtitles for Harrison Birtwistle's Gawain, because it had "an exceptionally dense orchestral score with much high-lying soprano singing". So he has already allowed surtitles for an opera in English.

Mr Payne is now examining the pros and cons of installing the surtitles, and promises initiatives over the next year.

He has already discovered one con for the shortsighted opera lover: surtitles on the back of the seat are hard to read if you wear bifocals.