I’ve said before that I don’t love English titles onscreen or in the opera house when an opera is sung in English. (Scroll down to the section on Britten’s Peter Grimes if you follow the link.) They seem geeky, to say the least, and only reinforce the notion that opera is — by nature — remote and unfathomable. (Even while they make it accessible. There’s a paradox there.)
Well, late in July, I saw Britten’s Billy Budd in a quite good production at the Santa Fe Opera. Of course there were titles, but I was also able to understand most of the singers, a good deal more than half the time they sing. And yes, the singers in this opera all are men; it’s women who have an especially hard time being understood, thanks to acoustical peculiarities with certain vowels sung on high notes. But still — I understood these singers most of the time.
And it was when one of them suddenly sang one line — in the midst of a longish aria — that I couldn’t understand, that I suddenly realized what one of the problems is. There might be inherent problems in understanding the words when opera singers sing. There may have been problems like that even in smaller theaters in past centuries. (The texts of the operas being performed were routinely on sale, for instance, in 19th century Italy.) But how hard do we work, even now, on making sure opera singers can be understood?
Yes, an opera singer will be trained in diction — clarity and correct pronunciation of all languages — and coaches sometimes will work on those things, even with established professionals. But is there anyone sitting out in the house during rehearsals, telling singers when their words aren’t clear? I’ve never heard of that being done. Would a rehearsal be stopped because someone couldn’t be understood in the 25th row? Would anyone have told the singer who made me think all this, “Look, almost everything you sang was understandable, except the two phrases at the start of page 193 in the vocal score”?
And if we don’t work on this, why should we be surprised when singers’ words aren’t clear? They themselves can’t know when they’re understandable, and when they’re not. Maybe if we made this a higher priority, those strange, redundant, English-on-English titles wouldn’t be needed.