The real meaning of surtitles

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The Independent Online
THE PROBLEM with surtitles is not whether text can be heard or even whether it is understood in opera ("You like Rambo and I like Rimbaud, so who should we feel sorry for?", 4 December). The problem is what it means as spoken, or more usually in o pera, sung. Theatre is about communication between people on stage, subtly modulated in its dramatic and social meaning and implications by acting and stage context. In the theatre words do not just mean what they say.

In opera text has all the ambiguity that it would possess in theatre, with the additional complication that, when sung, the music (which is being used by the singer) also modulates the meaning and the intention. And it is music that makes opera matter (for the characters in the drama and for the audience) and that contextualises the events and words as well as lending perspective and dynamic to the whole process. Music is the engine.

Of course it is important for opera audiences to get closer to what is being sung, especially if it is in a foreign language, but if they are only reading (and eye always takes precedence over ear) they will miss the point of what is going on, or reduce the music to a luxurious but incidental wash of sound. Also, when I am in conversation with somebody I generally look at them most of the time - not just for reasons of politeness, but to be able to gauge their intentions. In the theatre, the actors are talking to us. To interpret what they say (whatever the language) we have to see and hear them saying it. Reading is another thing.

Tom Sutcliffe London SW16