Surtitles: Helping Opera Audiences Get It

January 28, 2006

For some opera companies, getting people into the theater is becoming more difficult. The relunctance to attend an opera often stems from the inability to understand the libretto. The words are almost always sung in Italian, French or German. So, theaters introduced surtitles.

Surtitles, also called supertitles, are simultaneous translations of an opera projected on a screen over the stage. Surtitles enable audiences to understand the text and details of the story as the performance progresses. They have become common in American opera houses since their introduction in the mid-1980’s. But reviews are mixed.

Some say that when audiences understand all that is happening, it bolsters the energy in the theater, adding to the enjoyment of the show. Others question the need for them saying the distraction of the surtitles takes away from the entire experience.

Translations on Seat Backs

To counter some of these issues, opera houses began to install personal monitors into the back of seats, much like the TV monitors on airplanes. The monitors were first installed at the Met in New York, which is why they are sometimes called Met Titles.

These monitors allow audience members to follow the story in as many as eight languages. The control of whether or not the text is projected and in which language is in the hands of each individual. What’s more, each person usually can see only the light from his or her own monitor.

Which Opera Houses Use Seat-Back Surtitles

In Europe, these new surtitle monitors have been recently installed at:

With opera houses worldwide facing reductions in public funding, the need to draw more audiences will be critical. Advanced technologies go a long way in helping to popularize opera and make it more accessible to the general public.

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