Could operatic surtitles replace the programme plot synopsis to deliver real surprises?
The debate surrounding the pros and cons of operatic surtitles has fast become as old as the proverbial chestnut. Those of us who see them as the worst thing to happen to opera since the death of Mozart have well and truly lost the argument. Leaving aside the fact that it's hard to really listen and read at the same time, or that the eye cannot look in two places at once, or that the specific timing of the delivery of the text is no longer up to the performer, the fundamental problem for me is that a literal understanding of opera has become more important than its more emotionally elemental experience. Opera is not a rational art form, but a stylised medium in which the sum is more important than the parts.
However, accepting the undoubted popularity of surtitles, couldn't opera companies now abandon the tradition of printing the plot synopsis in the programme? If surtitles are an attempt to increase the dramatic nature of the occasion, perhaps we should turn their presence into an advantage by allowing the plot to unfold without any prior warning? Do we need to be told in advance that Mimi's cough is going to develop into something a bit more serious, that the Countess will eventually forgive all her husband's indiscretions, or that the Commendatore will in fact accept Don Giovanni's invitation and show up for dinner? It would be sensational for someone seeing Tosca for the first time to be genuinely astonished when she jumps off the castle ramparts, or horrified as Don José stabs Carmen in the heart. Knowing what is going to happen in the end might accentuate the dramatic irony experienced along the way but on a purely theatrical level that cannot be what composers and librettists intended. Even before surtitles, it seemed a shame to flag up some of opera's greatest surprises but now that there is no reason audiences cannot follow exactly what is happening word for word, couldn't we at least make the most of that and allow the drama to slowly reveal itself as it does in a play? Why is it that when we see Verdi's Otello we are told what is going to happen but when we see Shakespeare's Othello, we are not?
How much straight theatre and opera are alike is debatable. But the number of theatre directors opera companies employ certainly suggests many feel the mediums are interchangeable. The drama of opera might not always be realistic but that doesn't mean it cannot be true and true drama depends as much on the unexpected as anything else. A good film or play trusts the intelligence of an audience to follow what is happening, rewarding it with a constant sense of anticipation and surprise. Now that opera audiences can keep up with all the specific nuances of the text, there need not be any difference. It should not only be the soap kind of operas that are able to deliver shocking denouements.
Leading conductor Mark Wigglesworth is equally at home in the opera house as in the concert hall – and, indeed, the studio, where his acclaimed Shostakovich symphony cycle for BIS is nearing completion. In 'Shaping the invisible' Mark shares his passion for music and his fascination with the philosophies and psychologies that lie behind it. (Photo: Ben Ealovega)