It came as something of a shock to find in The New York Times of August 20 that the Metropolitan Opera had decided to surrender its long-held position against supertitles—the projection, on a screen suspended from the proscenium arch, of the words being sung, either in translation (if the operas are being produced in a foreign language) or in the original English. The Met’s titles, unlike everyone else’s, are to be displayed on television screens mounted on the back of each seat, with each screen shaded in such a way as not to be visible except to the person sitting before it. Just how far this system has been developed is anyone’s guess, but the principle of titles has been granted, and their eventual use is certain.

Cultural bastions are falling pretty regularly these days, and the Met’s attempt to preserve the integrity of its presentation against the intrusion of words that are meant to be seen rather than heard was a welcome example of artistic courage. The argument against supertitles, of course, is that they distract audiences from the music and the stage action: that at best they require the audience to look away from the opera frequently, and at worst they provide a continuing source of fascination that becomes, like watching television, something complete in itself.

The argument for supertitles, equally obviously, is that they enable the audience to get the gist of the libretto, and thus to participate more fully in the opera. It would seem that supertitles have been responsible for at least some of the surge over the past decade in opera attendance, and may well have brought an entirely new audience into opera houses across the country. Larger audiences mean more money; they also provide administrators and patrons alike with the gratifying feeling that they are filling a need other than simply presenting beautiful operas beautifully.

The reason for the Met’s long holdout on supertitles appears to have been music director James Levine’s adamant opposition. The Times quotes him as saying, in 1985: “Over my dead body will they show these things at this house. I cannot imagine not wanting the audience riveted on the performers at every moment.” But Mr. Levine is still alive, and there now will be titles at the Met.

What caused the Met to capitulate? The main reason is attendance. The 1992-93 season was disappointing at the box office. In the September issue of Opera News, Bruce Crawford, the Met’s powerful president, said that “[t]itles are … a mechanism for encouraging opera-lovers to try new experiences … If the Met isn’t going to restrict itself to the ‘greatest hits’ repertory, titles may be a necessity.” But Mr. Crawford clearly has in mind more than their use in out-of-the-way works: a bit later in the same article he remarks that “limited use for non-mainstream repertory undoubtedly would lead to general use. A decision to employ them for some operas inevitably means they will be utilized for all operas. So be it.”

But there is a deeper set of reasons for the Met’s capitulation. Even the august Metropolitan Opera has been forced to accept that in the current cultural world the better part of its audience—and perhaps almost all of the new audience—comes to see theater, not to hear music or, one is afraid, even the great tunes. Watching theater without understanding the words is naturally inadmissible. And then it is a sad fact that the Met, like opera houses all over the world, can no longer rely on a large and committed cadre of opera lovers who are willing to spend time before performances doing what might be called their homework: learning about the plots and the music so that the work being witnessed, even when it is in a foreign language, will be comprehensible.

So the Met’s démarche ultimately is to be explained by that same fact of life we see all over cultural (and indeed national) life: the inner decomposition, and non-renewal, of a cultured leadership elite. Many true opera lovers, however, do remain. It is hardly likely that they will rest content with Mr. Crawford’s blithe “So be it.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 2, on page 4
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