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24 October 2003

Opera North is in town, and I've been a culture vulture this last couple of nights, picking over the bones of quality: La Traviata followed by Massenet's Manon, which I didn't know at all. La Trav is old news, though none the less welcome for that; Manon was a revelation, lyrical and sensuous by turns. Loved the music, loved the production. Stupid story, but hey, what's new?

Which brings me to my fundamental position on opera, which is entirely opposed to my fundamental position on literature or any other medium of communication: ignorance is better than understanding.

My first opera was Tosca, back when I was a snotty adolescent - and boy, was I snotty about it. I didnít want to go, I thought I'd been tricked into it (by a Mr Adrian Underwood, late of Kingham Hill School, and if any of you come across him at all, tell him that he kept me out of opera houses for ten years thereafter), I was determined to hate it and so I did. But they really, really made it easy for me. It was an ENO production, and hence in English translation - and there is nothing simpler to deride than the banality of opera libretti against the pomp and circumstance of the music, especially when it's been through a translator's hands. 'Where's your lunch?' 'I've eaten it' - what art, what style! Ah, I was vicious in the homeward coach, and contemptuous for years thereafter, and only persuaded back by the promise that in the original I wouldn't understand it and so could just relax and enjoy the music. Which is what I did and what I do, and I'm still wary of opera in English even when that is the original. I will go to Britten (especially for the Auden libretti), but not much else.

Opera North, however, is using surtitles this year - or side-titles, rather, big screens to either side of the proscenium arch. I regarded them with hostility, and I think rightly so. If you put words in front of me, it's very hard not to read them; I spent half of Trav with my eyes more on the screens than the stage, and I don't believe that understanding the gist of every line added much to my enjoyment of the whole.

And then there was Manon, where the libretto is French, and I could muddle half along with it. How this would have been without the side-titles, I don't know; probably I would just have coasted along without trying, and just smiled occasionally as I recognised a phrase here or there. But with the titles - and particularly with the titles coming up just in advance of the line's delivery, just ahead of the action - I was reading the English off the screen and then waiting to hear the French, how close it was, how wide the translator had drifted. And of course there is drift, because it's abridgement as much as translation; 'Jamais, jamais, jamais!' just became 'No.' But if I'd been just a little more obsessive, or a little better at French, or a little less appreciative of the music, it could have ruined my evening. Happily not, none of the above, but a near-run thing; so God, yes, give me ignorance.

The only other time I've seen surtitles in a theatre was a Russian troupe acting below an English translation, and I thought afterwards how weird it must have been for them, because the piece had big laughs in it, but they were literary laughs, not slapstick action; and the translator had caught the humour of it, but there was a five-second timelag on the titles in that instance, so the actors would say the lines and move on, and then suddenly be hit by the laughter when they were already into the next phase. They carried on regardless, but it must have been strange.

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© Chaz Brenchley 2003
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.