Eyes on the Stage: Why Supertitles are Critical to Audience Involvement
At a concert in
I have sort of known this truth about supertitles for a long
time, and for a number of years at the Chicago Symphony (until budgetary
concerns forced us to go back to printed texts) we did use them. But I don't
think I fully realized then how much of a difference they made in the
listener's experience. Since my CSO years I have become more of a regular
audience member than I was as a manager. (Much as one wants to bring an
audience member's perspective to concerts when managing an orchestra, it is
actually impossible to listen as a disinterested observer; there is simply too
much baggage.) And having experienced works with texts in both formats, I can
state without question that supertitles are a significantly better way to
engage an audience member with the music fully.
Start with the fact that marrying text to music -- and the meaning of the text to music that is
occurring at a specific moment -- is critical to a complete understanding of the
work in question. One cannot fully appreciate the music of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde without knowing
the meaning of the words he set.
However, a printed text in a program book presents one
problem after another - in fact, I would bet that a significant percentage of
the audience doesn't even bother to follow that text because of the problems
- Concert hall lighting and aged eyes make reading printed texts difficult.
- The printed text in your lap literally pulls your attention away from the stage, and therefore the music - precisely what we do not want.
- Should you look up for a moment or two, you're lost - and you now spend mental effort and time trying to make a connection between the foreign sounds you are hearing -- perhaps from a singer with less-than-perfect diction -- and the gobbledygook on the printed page to see if you can locate where you are. By this time, any mood being created by the performance is gone.
sound of a few hundred pages turning at the same time is a not-so-lovely
accompaniment to the music!
Supertitles, on the other hand, translate the specific line
or lines being sung, and avoid every one of the problems above. If they are
discreetly placed in the hall, they will not distract those who don't want to
see them - and the fact is that most people really should want to see them.
While acknowledging the budgetary issues involved, I would still urge those who present concerts to recognize the artistic superiority of supertitles over printed texts, and to work toward making that a regular part of their presentations. Each year I feel more strongly that we must think about every aspect of how our music is presented, and about how we can work to communicate its essence with as much impact as possible.