Under the name of Supertitles, Met Titles and so on, closed captions have been a fact of life in opera for decades. Early on, there was outcry about the inherent drawbacks. Titles continually draw the eye away from the stage, detractors said, and that is true. Worse, titles undermine the illusion that the actors are real people acting on their own impulses, in real time. Thus live action takes on a preset, mechanical aspect, as in the movies. And that is true, too.
In an ideal world, where everyone effortlessly understood every word falling from the lips of the singers in the original language, titles would be superfluous. As it is, they serve their purpose better than any other crutch yet devised. They have become as integral to an opera production as sets and costumes, wigs and makeup. Like any other element, titles may enhance a performance, mar it or pass unnoticed, depending on execution. Yet most designers and directors seem to give them scant attention, taking the titling systems of the houses they work in pretty much as they find them.
Only rarely is an attempt made to tailor titles to a specific production. Apparently Patrice Chéreau cooked up something special for his take on Leoš Janáček's From the House of the Dead, incorporating text into the stage pictures. The strategy seems to have worked in earlier editions of the show in Aix-en-Provence and other cities, but as I write, Chéreau is unsure how to adapt it at the Met. Sightlines, it seems, were giving him problems.
Two seasons ago at the Met, director Phelim McDermott and associate director/designer Julian Crouch telegraphed terse messages onto the set of the Philip Glass epic Satyagraha. Most of the libretto (by Glass in tandem with Constance DeJong) went untranslated, for the compelling reason that it was never meant to be understood; rather than converse, characters spout tracts of the Bhagavad Gita in the original Sanskrit. As far as verbal comprehension was concerned, we might as well have been listening to vespers in Old Church Slavonic. What carried the burden of meaning was Glass's hypnotic music. But as a guide to meditation, the writing on the wall served to perfection.
In its way, Janáček's libretto for From the House of the Dead, taken from Dostoyevsky, is as unconventional as that of Satyagraha. The most powerful episodes take the form of hopeless prisoners' brooding monologues, written in long paragraphs that are hard to keep up with, especially when a) the narrative is attenuated by the tempo of the music, and b) the text is fractured into two- and three-line bits. Nevertheless Janáček wanted listeners to follow the text word for word. Native speakers of Czech, perhaps, can do so.
Two decades ago, a production of the opera in Brussels —despite diligent efforts, I have been unable to determine whose — handled the problem very elegantly. The titles (in two languages) were projected not on the usual measly strip but on a more generous, much deeper screen hung in the standard place above the proscenium — a "blank page" large enough to accommodate each set piece in full. The text took shape line by line, as if the character were writing out his confession as we watched over his shoulder. Once set down, the words lingered on the screen until the monologue ended. You could refer back. You could catch up when you fell behind. Just as critical, you could not anticipate. You could move at your own speed yet remain in the moment.
Would the same approach work for extended monologues in other operas — Wotan's in Act II of Die Walküre, for instance, or Tatiana's letter scene in Eugene Onegin? Probably not. For Janáček's convicts, time is at a standstill. Nothing remains but to dwell on the acts of violence that define them. That is what they do, and so — given the Brussels solution — may a spectator, examining and reexamining the transcript of their malefactions. Wotan, you may say, is just as bound up in the past. True, but even as he pauses to tell his story, events are hurtling forward, the same as for Tatiana. There's no time to look back.
Just as a production team can play with the quantity of text, it can play with the look. Robin Guarino and her colleagues did so in the premiere production of Douglas J. Cuomo's opera Arjuna's Dilemma, seen last year at SUNY Purchase as well as the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Like Satyagraha, and much more straightforwardly, the work is rooted in Hindu thought, in fact in the same holy text. Though other voices are heard, there are only two characters — Arjuna, the warrior, and Krishna, lord of the universe posing as Arjuna's charioteer. Lending their exchanges a Brahmin air, translations were projected onto the set in fantasy lettering that suggested Sanskrit. Hokey? Some may have thought so, but the exotic touch was apt. Unless it is illegible, a typeface that somehow meshes with a production adds a grace note absent from the usual workhorse fonts. And while few would deny that Met Titles serve their purpose, the arrangements of red pixels — redolent of dot matrix and news zipper — surely belong more to the workaday world of getting and spending than they do to the many-splendored realm of opera.
Transcending their primary simultaneous-translation function, titles have been known to mutate into commentary, marginalia or even hypertext, as in a rare revival of André Grétry's Zémire et Azor at Houston Grand Opera in the early 1990s. (The show was billed, freely but legitimately, as Beauty and the Beast.) In particular, I remember an aria di bravura in which the heroine had a great many more runs and roulades to toss off than thoughts to pin them on. "Neat, hunh?" one title read, when the steeplechase was at its dizziest.
few years before, the unpredictable Peter Sellars had come up with a baroque (Talmudic?) exercise in this vein at Lyric Opera of Chicago. He made no bones about the fact that he would rather not have had titles at all, but by this time, they were pretty much de rigueur. The opera was Tannhäuser. Though many sneered at his solution, the old-school Wagnerian Margaret Harshaw — a Bing-era Met stalwart in both mezzo and soprano parts, by then well into a distinguished teaching career — thought it the most interesting use of titles she had ever seen. As Harshaw described it, there were three sets of titles in three different colors — a naïve, fairly literal translation in white; a racy, more contemporary paraphrase in red; and a more melancholy, poetic translation in blue.
Being a realist, Harshaw never objected to the innovation of titles. "It's better than sitting there wondering what they're saying if you haven't studied the libretto before going," she once told the radio interviewer Bruce Duffie in Chicago. (And who studies librettos now? Neglecting to do so is a mistake, but in all honesty, there are times when study takes you only so far. After sitting down to listen to five different recordings of Boris Godunov, each with libretto in hand, I was still bewildered by a pre-titles performance of the opera — by no means my first. The first time I saw it with titles, everything changed.)
As a veteran of both Venus and Elisabeth, Harshaw was better prepared for such an experiment than most. I may say from personal experience that a civilian could enjoy it, too. One detail in which my recollection diverges from Harshaw's concerns the texts in blue, which were not translations of Wagner at all but free-floating lines and thoughts of the German Romantic poets, steeped in the dark longings that pervade the opera.
Might the approach be grafted onto another opera? Would slapping captions on all manner of props and costumes, as the madcap Nobel laureate Dario Fo did in his Pesaro production of Rossini's La Gazzetta, make sense in any other context? Who knows? These, too, were unique solutions to particular challenges.
Or perhaps the circumstances were not unique in themselves so much as they prompted particular artists to frame the challenge before them in a singular way. In the best of all possible worlds, would production teams start from scratch on this issue every time? Maybe so. At the same time we must ask, Why keep inventing the wheel? When in doubt, there's always plain vanilla. The orchestra in the pit, titles where audiences expect to see them — that works pretty well, most of the time. It takes a Socratic artist — one for whom the unexamined production is not worth mounting — to sense the need for a quantum leap.