Eyes on the Stage: Why Supertitles are Critical to Audience Involvement

At a concert in Houston a few months ago, I heard a dramatic work for soloists, chorus, and orchestra called The Refuge, with music by Christopher Theofanidis and text by Leah Lax. While I found it absorbing in part because of its text, I realized the huge difference there is in a listener's experience when supertitles are used (as they were here) as opposed to a printed text.

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 involved.

  • 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.
  • The 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.

August 1, 2008 3:53 PM | | Comments (6)



This is great - I recently designed the supertitles for the Martha Graham
Dance Company's production of Clytemnestra.

Research shows that a large percentage of audiences don't even read their programs, which makes supertitles even more necessary. While the budgetary issues are a consideration, it is not as expensive as you may think.

Moreover, when more companies begin working with supertitles, theaters and presenters will be more willing and ready to accommodate.

Yes, for super-titles. Eyes can often focus simultaneously on words and image. Or, if image is changing too fast, eyes shift efortlessly from image to text or vice versa. Yes, for super-titles

I recently wrote and performed a narrative for a piece my husband, Christopher Zimmerman, was performing for precisely the reasons you outline and I couldn't agree more. Our fear was that the unfamiliar story and Spanish language arias in the piece (an early version of de Falla's El Amor Brujo) would result in an audience with its heads in their program books and the loud unison turning of pages. But not all venues support supertitles, and they are an expensive option even then. We found a narrator provided the information the audience needed and even added another dimension of drama to the piece. Obviously this isn't an appropriate response to every piece, but it was the right one on this occasion and I think should be considered whenever such challenges come up. The music remains the focus, communicating with the audience without losing them to the focus breakers of program books, or even supertitles.

Dear Mr. Fogel. Thank you for your support of supertitles. They are most important to the enjoyment of an operatic performance on the part of the general 'illibrettoate' viewing audience, even when the singers are trying to sing what they consider 'English'. I now hear audiences laughing and gaffowing at the proper places, and even gasping when Otello slaps Desdemona to the ground.
The LCD back of the seat system used at The Met is a compromise at best. The screens are not easily read without causing a literal pain in my neck (I am somewhat tall.}, or being blinded by trying to shift my eyesight from a brightly lit stage picture to the small green screen. The lady in front of me unthinkingly used to throw the collar of her fur coat over the back of her seat, even when I had to remind her at each performance.
Signed by a fanatical alberit untutored opera fanatic. Lloyd L. Thoms Jr., Wilmington, DE.

This is a very perceptive comment, Henry. I would have to say I agree. No matter what you do, printed texts are awkward, whereas titles make the experience of the text a more integrated part of the performance. And for those who don't wish to see them, they are easily ignored.

Funny that you should bring this up just a couple of weeks after I attended a concert opera at Tanglewood. I was seated right behind the box seats, yet I suspect I was in the LAST row of patrons who could read the supertitles without binoculars. The words were green over a black background, which in my opinion made them tougher to make out. There may be problems with Tanglewood's shed that do not occur in Symphony Hall, but SOMEONE in the adinistration of an opera company or symphony orchestra should strive mightily to make to make supertitles easily legible for all ticket holders.


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