Surtitles

27 June 2013

PRESS RELEASE: 26 June 2013

Sitting high up in a box at Birmingham’s Hippodrome Theatre is Stephen Wood. With one hundred per cent concentration, his eyes dart back and forth between the computer screen before him and an annotated music score accompanying the opera which is taking place on stage. His right hand hovers almost nervously over the computer mouse and, as his brain matches the music in the score to that in the orchestra pit, his fingers click down.

Hidden from view, the packed audience has no idea that Stephen, a member of Welsh National Opera’s music staff, is even there. But they would soon know if he wasn’t – because Stephen is controlling the surtitles.

Opera-goers have a love/hate relationship with surtitles. Looking up at the words every few lines can be distracting – but not looking at them means you can quickly lose the plot. With opera sung in a range of languages including German, Italian, French and Russian, there are few of us multi-lingual enough to follow the story without surtitles.

And even opera sung in English can benefit from a bit of help in distinguishing the diction.

Which brings us back to Stephen hidden away in his theatre box working hard to ensure every person in the theatre can follow the story.

His actions are precise.

“There is an art to surtitling and it can be quite satisfying,” he says. “You have to concentrate a lot. You can’t miss even one surtitle as everyone would notice.

“In some theatres we can see the stage and we can see the conductor and that makes it a lot easier and more enjoyable as you feel more part of it. You can make your cues more accurate because you can see the conductor and when he is putting the upbeat and the downbeat. You can also look at the singers’ mouths and see when they are breathing.”

But Stephen, who has worked for WNO for five years, admits that even with ultimate concentration it is still possible to slip by a second or two if a surtitler is unable to see what is happening on stage.

“If you are not able to see then you just have to rely on how well you know the piece and just guess actually! In some operas the timing can be slightly different every night and then you do have to do a bit of guesswork. And sometimes you can end up just slightly in front or slightly behind and that is frustrating.

“Before I did this job I thought it was probably the case that people in the audience didn’t actually notice those split second differences. Then one night someone said for a piece ‘were you asleep at the surtitles or something?’

“In English it is more noticeable. If you think about it, if you are watching TV, say EastEnders with the subtitles on, then the title would go up as they start speaking or as they are speaking but not afterwards.  People would notice."

And the choice of words is also important.

“We hire someone to do a translation and we also hire someone to translate it into Welsh for when we are performing in Wales,” says Stephen. “They will artfully do a kind of ‘surtitle translation’ as you wouldn’t want to translate everything, especially something wordy like La bohème or Così fan tutte. If you did that there would just be a barrage of text and no-one would be able to look at the stage as they would be looking at the screen the whole time.

“So they have to find a none-too-fussy translation where they weigh up people looking at the screen and looking at the stage. It is basically the essence of what is being sung. It can be a bit frustrating for people who know the show really well because they think it is too simplistic but a good number of people who come to our shows are new to opera and it is important that they don’t feel stuck to a surtitle screen.”

Once the translation is done it receives feedback.

“The next stage is that the director will see the translation because they might want to slightly change the words to fit in with their production,” Stephen explains. “And maybe the conductor may have a look as well and these things get thrown into the mix.

“Then when rehearsals start on the stage someone will be in the surtitle box and they will basically practice doing it in the rehearsal so the director can see if they have any more suggestions. And then we are away.”

For many people surtitles provide a gateway to opera, ensuring they are able to understand the actions taking place on stage.

“In a foreign language, surtitles are all important,” says Stephen. “In the days before surtitles I don’t know how most people could follow the opera. Even if you had a synopsis and the acting was really clear it must still have been difficult to know what was happening – and it must be kind of boring if you don’t know what is going on. It would be a bit like watching a foreign film without subtitles. Having surtitles is the first step to the elitism of opera being demolished. It is the fact that people can understand what is going on, pure and simple.

“There is an on-going argument about whether there should be surtitles to operas sung in English. In certain places the acoustics are very difficult for every word to be heard. Plus English to be sung is very difficult because of the nature of the vowels. It is not a natural language to sing so it is difficult to be super clear – especially if it is an opera written in a foreign language and then performed in English.

“Having the surtitles there gives people the choice – although when they are there you can’t really help but look at them!”
Controlling the surtitles is only one facet of Stephen’s job on the music staff with WNO. As a répetiteur, he can take on all kinds of roles including playing piano, singing, conducting and leading music workshops.

A musician since the age of five, he studied music at Oxford University, then took Postgraduate Répetiteur Studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Trained as a chorister, Stephen is a singer as well as being able to play a number of musical instruments including piano and organ.

And as a music lover he is keen for other people to share his enthusiasm for opera.

“I don’t think opera is elitist because anyone can enjoy it – why not?” he says.  “It is not so different from watching a good film. Opera has great stories, beautiful music and text with it so what is there not to enjoy? A lot of musicals and musical theatre branch out of popular opera. A lot of musical theatre owes a lot to Puccini or maybe Johann Strauss. It is all in the same ball park.

“I think some people see opera as elitist because so many of the works are old but what they don’t realise is that you can breathe new life into them. People who like pop music think opera is really foreign to them but actually all of these operas have their short pop songs. Everyone knows some popular bits from operas because you hear them on Classic FM or in adverts or in films.

“For some people a good way into opera is to see one of the shows which has those really famous bits. And when you are doing the surtitles you often hear people go ‘oh, it’s that famous bit’. That is a good way in and you listen to that bit and like it and then realise there are other good bits in. And then you might go and buy the CD or go and see something else.

“In the new season a good introduction would be Madam Butterfly. It would be the safest one - You can’t go wrong with Puccini, he is the ultimate for a newcomer. Lots of tunes, lots of beauty, lots of music people recognise. That is why he influenced people like Andrew Lloyd Webber and George Gershwin. Madam Butterfly has all the hits and it also has the emotion – it is like going to see a soppy film at the cinema. People like to have a good old cry.

“I also think that Janáček is good for newcomers.  And we also have Berg’s Lulu which is an incredible story, dramatically it is unbelievable. It is a dark story and some of the music is very dark but it is also incredibly beautiful. I would say it is a bit like a play with some quite dark film music. It is very modern and some people will prefer that.”

And for audiences at Birmingham there is an added bonus with the new season as the Hippodrome now has additional screens for surtitles.

“There used to be seats at the back of the stalls where people couldn’t see the surtitles but now they have these new screens everyone is able to see them,” says Stephen. “That makes it much easier for everyone.”

The new screens play a number of roles because, as well as providing surtitle space for opera, they are also used for caption performances aimed at people who are hard of hearing.

Hippodrome education and audience development manager Liz Leck explains: “They are all part of making the theatre more inclusive. It is interesting because for the captioned performances people can request the seats where you can see the screens but they are actually useful for everybody. If you watch people you can see lots of them looking up!”

Diane Parkes