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Show not over until the translator sings

The English National Opera is planning to have surtitles above the stage for all its productions, even though they are performed in English. In effect, the company is endorsing sotto voce complaints heard in the auditorium for years that ''this may be a great production but you can't understand a word they're singing''.

The idea will be tried out on an experimental basis soon then probably used nightly from next year at the London Coliseum, the ENO's home.

Surtitles are already used at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, for foreign language productions, but it will be a radical departure for a company to employ them for works in English.

John Nickson, head of corporate affairs at the ENO, said last night: ''It is true this is being considered and the likelihood of it happening is strong. All the management are aware of concern from audiences that they can't always make out the precise words being sung, particularly with certain composers. It is a matter that is raised with me very often.''

While the ENO's plan will delight many of the audience, it will sit a little uneasily with its boast, and indeed its whole raison d'etre, that by performing international works in English it is bringing opera to a mass audience. Once it has surtitles, the question arises why it does not perform operas in their original language. But Mr Nickson said the company would not consider singing in anything but English.

Patrick Dickie, a former staff director at the ENO, said: ''This will be very useful for a lot of people, but politically it would be a very silly thing to do. The argument at ENO has always been that you can follow the action and the jokes from moment to moment; and once you acknowledge that you can't do this then you come under pressure to perform the operas in their original language.''