#4 28/11/2019 Confessions of an Opera Surtitler

(In 29 Surtitles)



Some love them, some hate them,

but if you get them wrong, they can derail an entire show


Punctuation is a delicate balance.

Many opera libretti are written in an overly punctuated style!


But the eye gets tired of endless rows of exclamatory text!

 It’s exhausting!


…as is mysterious…




Some places, like the wonderful Welsh National Opera

have bilingual surtitles, but in a previous production of Carmen,


this resulted in Mercédès singing about her future husband,

who, instead of being an army chief, became an army chef


Sometimes, sitting in the surtitling box for hours,

you can go a little mad


In a stage rehearsal for Madama Butterfly,

I once briefly surtitled the Humming Chorus


It looked like this:





I thought this was hilarious


Timing is everything. If you press the button too soon,

you have a choice:


Do you remove the title, and admit your error,

or keep the faith, and pray the singer comes in soon?


In fact, most audience members aren’t aware that there is

someone pressing a button, following the score every night


Sometimes the technology is against you.

I heard of a performance that had to stop because the titles got stuck


They read:





No one ever understood why


Fact: opera singers make up new words more frequently

if they are singing in their native language


Also true: they have an uncanny habit of singing the same mistake

multiple times in rehearsal…


…and then, as soon as you change the title to match them,

they revert to the original text


(The temptation to completely change the plot of the opera

is an urge that never entirely goes away)


But on the best days, you forget you are working at all

because the orchestra sounds so astonishing


And then a singer makes you weep

with the beauty and raw emotion of their performance


And that’s when you think

What a wonderful world to be working in,


What a joy to be alive,

What a privilege to work in this extraordinary industry


And then you think…


Oh s***!

That was my cue!

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