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.