More on titles

I loved the comments on my recent post on opera titles. They built a safety net under my limited Italian, provided wonderful examples of the things I was talking about, and took my ideas a lot further. And I want to sent a happy shout to Cori Ellison, who commented, who works professionally with titles, and provides a point of view that the rest of us don’t have.

It all makes me want to state, or restate, some general points.

First, it strikes me that we tend to think of titles as purely explanatory, a neutral element in an opera performance. But I don’t think that this is right. They’re part of what reaches the audience from the stage. They’re part of the artistic experience. So they should be planned together with every other artistic element in the production, and should be held to the same standard.

Secondly, I think that titles are meant to overcome difficulties in classical music, in this case the inconvenient fact that the standard operas are almost all (from the point of view of the English-speaking world) in foreign languages. And this meshes with an overall sense that classical music offers difficulties — or, even worse, the perception that there are difficulties — and that therefore it should be made simpler. So the titles are made lean, and purely functional. But again I don’t think that’s right. I think we underestimate how much our audience reads, how much they can appreciate literary things. And we especially underestimate the younger audience, which loves offbeat and unusual things, even things that are weird.

Finally, I want to repeat something I said in response to one of the comments. If I ever write another opera, and if it’s performed in a place that offers Englilsh titles for English-language works, I want to specify the titles in the score. I want them to do more than overcome any diction problems, by communicating exactly what the characters are singing. I’d like them to be an artistic element in their own right, possibly (I haven’t thought this out in much detail) by adding narration (with attitude), and by adding asides that the characters don’t actually speak. I’d sometimes want titles when nobody is singing. I’d prefer, I think, a production with clear diction and no titles at all, but if we’re going to have them, I want them to contribute something on their own.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. DJ says

    Fascinating discussion. It’s interesting to compare opera titles to translations of plays, which necessarily go beyond a literal rendition of the original text. They frequently have a decisive interpretative role: here in Britain, the tangy comedy of Chekhov versions by Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn has played in part in changing the prevailing view of the Russian playwright to something spiky, absurd, unsentimental. Directors and translators work closely together to align text with production.

    This occasionally happens in opera too: English National Opera are currently performing Richard Jones’ production of Pagliacci in an English version by playwright Lee Hall (who also wrote the film Billy Elliot). They set the opera in northern England during the 1970s, the clown troupe transformed into the cast of a tatty farce. This is an audacious example of rewriting; but do/should opera producers insist on titles that will support their production or indicate character? How far should they push title translation beyond the literal? Should the creatives accept that audiences will be using the titles and try to make them serve the production as much as the set, costumes or props? Or should the titles remain a momentary aid, but not a distraction drawing attention from the stage picture?

  2. Suzanne Derringer says

    Hi, Greg –

    Well…Opera can’t be intelligible in the way that a song program can be (or should be) – because the words themselves are not always the point. Usually the words are NOT the point. Especially in Baroque or Romantic Italian opera, where a few, usually banal and utterly predictable, phrases are uttered over and over – in arias or in ensembles. The vocalization is the point: the emotional meaning is carried by the sound, the runs and trills and whatnot.

    It’s a case of “Prima la musica, e poi le parole”. Music first. Voice first.

    The voice is, of course, also being projected over a sizeable orchestra into a large auditorium – and usually, especially, say, in Verdi, the vocal lines are written rather high, hovering around the top of the staff; this is just where pure sound takes over, where distinctions between vowels blurs, and consonants must be judiciously abbreviated.

    Nobody is going to understand most operatic singing AS WORDS, unless they already know the libretto extremely well. Titles, in my experience, can be a rough guide to the stage action, but in the “real time” of the performance, the audience can only grasp the main ideas as they scan from the title to the stage and back.

    I told one literal-minded theatergoer, who complained about not being able to understand opera in English: If you want to understand the words as they are uttered – go to a play. This is not the point of opera, especially the older, more florid ones.

    Well, Suzanne, for once I disagree with you. I think Italian opera is very eloquent, in the way the music expresses the words. Especially Verdi. One problem is that most singers don’t do much with the words. They have a few standard emotional stances, and while these can be effective, even potent and touching, they don’t do much to differentiate one word from another. But if you listen to someone like Carlo Bergonzi, then you’re in a different league.

    And for what in my experience is just about the ultimate in making deep sense of Italian opera words, listen to the Callas/Gobbi recording of Rigoletto. When those two are singing (and so often together), listening to the recording is like hearing the performance of a really powerful stage play. Or at least it can be that way if you understand the Italian. I’ve never been so drawn in by an opera recording, and I’m tempted (assuming these rankings mean anything) to call it the greatest opera recording ever made.

  3. says

    I just don’t see the damn point of going to hear a dramatic work supposedly written in a language I speak and then not being able to figure out what is being sung. But then, I’ve never enjoyed much opera, either.

    I suspect some of the same people who defend opera’s unintelligibility are the same people who complain about that rap music with all its slang and incoherent shouting. Now that I’ve typed that, I realize that is an incredibly inane point, but I’m still going to put it up.

    You go, Andrew. No reason not to put out something outrageous, and maybe discover it’s not so outrageous after all.