Janos Gereben interviewed mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, one of the stars of SF Opera's Sweeney Todd, and along the way she had a few things to say about supertitles.
It's a hot-button issue with me. I do not believe in them, full stop. I believe with all my heart that what Supertitles have done is to train audiences not to listen.
They don't listen the same way - they hear it but they don't listen. I am not here to ruffle feathers about Supertitles, but I am an artist first, I serve the music, the audience, and what I see is that Supertitles have not only changed the way audiences listen, but changed the way singers prepare. It has made it a completely different experience.
Last night, for example [at the dress rehearsal, attended by school audiences], there were several times in the dialog [which is included in the titles] when a had a word slip and I put in something else, I got the gist of the line, and my first thought was, Oh crap, that's not what they are getting in the titles! It shouldn't be that way.
I work overtime in everything I do to be sure, especially in my own language, so that everyone understands me, so they don't have to look. Imagine, put yourself in the body of a singer, who is looking into an audience, and all you see is this: chins up.Where to start? Well, with the idea that somehow audiences that don't have supertitles are better listeners. Blythe might try going to a bunch of symphony concerts, and see what she thinks of audiences there. She could ask them some questions about why they are there and how they listen to music. She might be surprised; lots of them are there for companionship or to hear the pretty tunes. They are not listening in the analytical and attentive way she might imagine they are.
I am curious about just how far she can see into the house when she's performing. I'm pretty certain she can't see me in the Dress Circle. And when I'm in the orchestra, my chin is up partly so that I can see the stage!
As she says, she's there to serve the audience. Audiences are better served by knowing what's happening on stage, and in more detail than might be obvious from the staging. I just saw seven operas in German, a language I don't understand very well, without supertitles. Fortunately, I've read the librettos, multiple times, and I've seen each of the operas multiple times with supertitles, but even then, I do not know what's happening or being said on a line-by-line basis, because I just can't carry around seven 900 to 1200 line translations in my head.
Maybe she can. If that's the case, I want to hear how she does it.
And, you know, there's an obvious solution to what she sees as a problem. She could be advocating for opera in English. That's right, English-language operas, and opera in translation. This will get her laughed out of every opera house in the English-speaking world that isn't the Coliseum, London.*
Oh, wait: Sweeney Todd is in English. Well, maybe she should try to talk David Gockley into turning the supertitles off. Surely her diction is good enough to be understood 150 feet away in the far reaches of the opera house, right? And under the orchestra overhang?
Well, let's look at a past review of a Blythe recital, written by me. She performed a song cycle on a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center program, in a small venue, Herbst Theater, which seats maybe 900. Here is what I had to say:
The texts weren’t printed in the program, at Blythe’s request, on the grounds that she would like to see the audience’s faces when she sings to them, and because she feels her diction is good enough that the texts aren’t necessary. This would have been easier for me to swallow if Blythe herself hadn’t had the score and texts in front of her for the duration. As an audience member I found this distracting. Moreover, while her diction was, indeed, largely superb, I had to wait until the distribution of the text during intermission to find out what, exactly, had happened to the horses at the climax of “The Mountain.” (Spoiler: No equines died in the making of the song cycle.)I'd like to remind Stephanie Blythe that she can talk about serving the audience all she wants, but what she is proposing - the elimination of supertitles - and what she does in her performances - deny audiences the printed text - are profoundly anti-audience. I'd also like to remind her that we are paying her fees. And lastly, I'd like to suggest that she spend some time attending opera performances in a language she doesn't understand, perhaps Russian or Hungarian, and then get back to me about how terrible supertitles are.
* Personally, I would be fine with more opera in good English translations. Not Jeremy Sams, not David Gockley, but translations by Andrew Porter.