Thursday, September 17, 2015

I Call Bullshit on Stephanie Blythe.

Update: It has come to my attention that Sweeney Todd is amplified. One friend hated it so much he walked out. I wonder whether Blythe mentioned this to her interviewer, and what effect that knowledge might have had on the interview.

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.


Anonymous said...

" I just can't carry around seven 900 to 1200 line translations in my head."

A singer in a major role can carry around a significant fraction of that in the original, whether it's her native language or not, plus the music, plus the staging of that particular production. I don't know how they can do that, either.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I understand that pretty well, because I remember words and music that I performed in the 1970s shockingly well. I know an awful lot of the German text of Schubert's song cycles, too, just from having studies, but not sung, them.

It takes most singers about a year of study to have a new role under their belts. They work with their teachers and coaches on the new role, and live with it.

They also have prompters to rely on during performances. Given that Blythe wasn't confident that she had memorized a half-hour song cycle well enough to do without the music, she may take advantage of this from time to time. And there is absolutely no shame in that - everybody does.

Dr.B said...

I agree with some of this. In particular nothing pisses me off more than that the artist has not memorized the works. Only concerts with orchestra allow singers to hold book. Never recitals.

I prefer the Met setup where the titles are optional.

berners01 said...

I think Ms Blythe has a point, certainly regarding texts printed in programs. I’ve just come from attending nine lieder recitals at the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg. Roughly half the singers were professionally prepared and sang from memory, singing directly to us, the audience, and the result was a very satisfying experience.

The others sang from their music, including one well-known operatic tenor who didn’t take his eyes off the score for Die schöne Müllerin - the result? We might as well have stayed at home and listened to a recording. The communication between performer and audience was non-existent.

The point I’m trying to make is that is you are prepared to do your homework, you shouldn’t need cribs. The ideal situation is for both artist and audience to know what they are singing about, and actually, I disagree with you, it’s not that hard to prepare yourself this this level.

I also attended the Bayreuth performances to which you refer and had no trouble following the words/actions in spite of an absence of surtitles (would that Mr Castorf had done the same…??). It's simply a question of doing your homework.

On the other hand I have a soft spot for surtitles in opera performances because they give me something to look at during the boring/silly/badly performed bits.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I've just gotta ask why she demands that the audience be perfectly prepared and attentive when she sang a song cycle unfamiliar to the audience (local premiere) from the score herself.

I also think that it is 2015, and something musical organizations know about their audiences is that most of them don't do the homework. And those are the audiences who buy tickets, attend performances, and make donations.

Henry Holland said...

Supertitles have been around since 1983. I went to my first opera, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1988. It was at the Wiltern here in Los Angeles, one of LAO's attempts to break away from the Dot. I might be wrong, but I don't think they used Supertitles. I was listening intently but maybe half the words came across, I was only able to follow along because I knew the Shakespeare play fairly well.

LAO also has done Britten's Albert Herring and Turn of the Screw at the Dot and it was maddening because no matter how well the singers got the words across, they couldn't sing full voice to reach the back row or they'd drown out the small orchestras used in them. So, the words just evaporated in to thin air at that barn. I knew the librettos really well, but what a frustrating experience.

Coliseum, London

I've been there on multiple occasions: Busoni's Doktor Faust, Wozzeck, Parsifal, an incredible production of Death in Venice, all in English, of course. Due to the nature of the theater (i.e. the really high ceiling) the words just vanish in to thin air. The diction was good > great, it didn't matter. I know the words to the Britten cold, but the rest were just another frustrating experience of trying to hear what was being sung.

To be honest, I find the whole "But...you're taking your eyes off the stage, oh no!!!" argument to be odd. For me, a good chunk of the time on an opera stage, especially in something like Parsifal, there's *nothing happening*. I don't count a singer parked at the front of the stage emoting to be so dramatically compelling that I can't take my eyes off of them for all of 5 seconds.

Where Supertitles are a problem for me is ensembles where the different singers are singing different words, it's a poor compromise.

Molly said...

Perhaps in a world in which all singers had diction as fine as Blythe's and all audience members had time and resources for preparation before performances, and all halls were small enough and had perfect acoustics, Blythe's argument might make a bit more sense. But, everyone is still entitled (pun not intended) to engage with a performance on their own terms.

I don't understand her concern about titles and sung text not matching. They never do in translations. Also, in many productions, the translated titles may match what is going on on stage better than the original libretto (as in Sellers' productions of Mozart operas, to give one example).

I also wonder how far she would take her aversion. Does it extend to captions in foreign films? Subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired?

Lisa Hirsch said...

And what about an audience of people who couldn't see her?

Vajra said...

I'm sad to report that I must be unprepared because I feel that I benefit from supertitles. Opera, after all, is music and lyric, and I usually want to know what is being sung. Even languages that I know are often incomprehensible without the supertitles.

CruzSF said...

Ugh, I wish I could remember the book in which I read that, in olden times -- Baroque through Verdi -- composers and librettists recognized that listeners could understand only about 50% of sung text, even when it's performed in their native language, so repetition of selected words and phrases was seen as necessary. Was it in Gossett's "Divas and Scholars"? It's been so long since I've read that book that I don't remember. Has anyone else here come across this information?

Lisa Hirsch said...

That sounds right and Gossett sounds plausible.

Also, this show is amplified, I have learned from friends, including the one who walked out because he so hated the amplification.

CruzSF said...

I had heard that it was amplified (maybe from a Facebook friend), and yes, there were a couple of glitches. At one point while Brian Mulligan was singing, the audio cut out for a second. Not long but noticeable. At other points, the sound changed from a big stage acoustic to that of a small bathroom (and then back again).

A couple of people in our section did walk out during Act 1 and others didn't return after intermission, although I didn't ask them for their reasons.

E C said...

I attended Stephanie Blythe's master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where an audience member questioned her about her position on this. She was very careful to say that this was her preference as an artist, and not a blanket position she feels she can decide for another artist. She did give a clear, reasoned, and impassioned argument for developing and encouraging active listening as a civic value. I cannot do justice to her point here.

What was clear to me, is that Ms. Blythe is a proponent of "being in the moment" with limited distractions. She wants to create that environment as part of the community she creates as part of her art.

As for advocating performance in English, while the topic of more opera in English was not on the table, she was giving a master class in the interpretation and performance of Art Song in English. She said she, herself, is committed to singing Art Song in English and promoting American composers who are composing to poems in English.

Really, at the end of the class I'd felt like I'd spent time with a star English teacher, who loves the language, and American literature most particularly, whose main form of expression is singing.

E C said...

As to the amplification at the Opera House for Sweeney Todd, my understanding is that the terms of the license agreement for the work requires it be performed with amplification. So it is the artistic choice of the works creators, and not the director or the opera house.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you for the report on Blythe's master class.

I am going to ask about the licensing, because Sondheim isn't Adams, and he grew up in the theater in the age before routine amplification.

Lisa Hirsch said...

EC, San Francisco Opera tells me that the license to perform Sweeney Todd does not require amplification. For the SFO run, it's a decision made by the company.