The Week in Arts: Do we need surtitles in English opera?

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The reviews of 1984 at the Royal Opera House this week addressed many issues: the fine staging by Robert Lepage, the riveting performance by Simon Keenleyside as Winston Smith, the distinctly mixed bag that was the music, and the wisdom of Covent Garden to allow what was essentially a vanity project by the composer and conductor Lorin Maazel.

The reviews of 1984 at the Royal Opera House this week addressed many issues: the fine staging by Robert Lepage, the riveting performance by Simon Keenleyside as Winston Smith, the distinctly mixed bag that was the music, and the wisdom of Covent Garden to allow what was essentially a vanity project by the composer and conductor Lorin Maazel.

But I don't think anyone mentioned what I, at Tuesday's first night, found utterly fascinating - that this English-language opera of a story everyone knows had surtitles. While the chorus sang Orwell's words "Ignorance is strength", there, above the stage, flashed on a screen were the words: "Ignorance is strength".

What, I wonder, would the opera-goer from Mars make of this? What, indeed, would our Martian make of the fact that, while an English-language opera at Covent Garden has surtitles, round the corner at the London Coliseum the whole season of international opera is performed in English by the English National Opera, but has not a single surtitle? Why does one audience need this sort of help, while another audience just a few hundred yards away does not?

And what about Britain's third world-famous opera house, Glyndebourne? It has never yet used surtitles for an English-language performance. But that might change. I am informed that for this summer's staging of Jonathan Dove's Flight it does not intend to have surtitles, yet it might introduce them during the run if audiences appear to have difficulty.

So there we are, Mr Martian. When it comes to opera performed in English, one major opera house has surtitles; one never has them; one probably won't, but is keeping its powder dry. So much for logic! And to make it even more of a nonsense, many in the audience at all three institutions will be the same people - deemed to be able to hear and understand in one building but not in another.

My own mind began to change on Tuesday. I had been against the apparent illogicality of English surtitles for a performance in English, but I found myself constantly looking at Orwell's words on screen. It has to be admitted that it is often hard to make out the words in operatic singing, even when they are in your own language.

But where does this leave English National Opera? The answer is that it leaves them with a real problem. For once that company begins to use surtitles, the logic to perform in the original language then becomes overwhelming.

If the audience is looking at English words on a screen anyway, then why not perform their international repertory of operas in the Italian or Czech or German for which they were composed? But - and it's a massive but - if you perform the operas in their original language, then certain awkward questions might be raised, such as what is the raison d'être of the English National Opera? And why should they be funded from the public purse?

That is the real reason why the same audiences are deemed to have better hearing at the English National Opera than round the corner at the Royal Opera House.

In the hands of a master

The opening of the National Theatre's Henry IV Parts I and II with Sir Michael Gambon playing Falstaff was preceded by an unusual and illuminating event. Television cameras for The South Bank Show were allowed in to the rehearsals. It is rare that cameras are let in at all, rarer still for the lengthy period that this was, and particularly rare for the National Theatre and a notably private actor such as Gambon.

It was fascinating to watch Nick Hytner directing Gambon, and coaxing a masterful performance from him. One sequence will remain in the memory. "It's not as much fun as Part I," the actor said almost accusingly to Hytner during a section of Part II. "It's not as much fun," agreed Hytner, before adding, "but it's better."

Part II was, he said, a study by Shakespeare of what it is like to grow old. Gambon, with his greying beard, stood for some moments reflecting. He looked almost sad, and no one in the rehearsal room dared to break the silence.

¿ Once a writer, always a writer. The novelist Nick Hornby was guest editor this week of the London magazine Time Out. Guest editor - that's the job where you usually commission other people to write pieces. But Nick Hornby seems loath to put up his pen.

An interview with the Arsenal star Robert Pires was preceded by a think piece on Pires by Nick Hornby. The rock group The Magic Numbers were interviewed by Nick Hornby. For a review of the biography of Penguin founder Allen Lane, Nick Hornby commissioned Nick Hornby. No doubt there was a trawl in the music department to find someone to review the week's singles. But, the guest editor eventually decided on Nick Hornby.

The magazine's main interview, though, was conducted by John O'Connell. He interviewed Nick Hornby. I have no information on what the Time Out staff did for lunch. But I suspect there was a fry-up cooked by Nick Hornby.

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