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Bob Bernard's Corner: Entitlements - Then and Now

Understanding What the Fat Lady Sings

By Bob Bernard

“Das ist kein Mann!”

Siegfried’s exclamation [This is no man!], upon removing Brünnhilde’s breastplate at the onset of the third scene of Act Three of Siegfried, would likely --- if projected as a supertitle --- elicits some inappropriate giggles, perhaps even more so from those of us who already had in mind comedienne Anna Russell’s citing of what she declared to be the classic understatement of all time: “I mean: Have you seen the average Brünnhilde?”

The art of writing and displaying supertitles has developed since Iranian-born, UCLA graduate Lotfi Mansouri, then manager of the Canadian Opera Company, began it on this continent with a production of Elektra in Toronto in January 1983, projecting simultaneous translation of the libretto onto a screen above the proscenium. Beverly Sills introduced them stateside with a production of Massenet’s Cendrillon [Cinderella] in September of the same year at the New York State Theater.

This innovation met with initial opposition from some critics and administrators. In remembrance of those who once shouted, “Get a horse!” at the pioneers driving one of Henry Ford’s early creations, we recall these reactions:

  1. “a pathetic marketing grab for the fringe public” … opera “is not a reading experience.” --- Robert M. Jacobson, (then) editor of Opera News
  2. Called Beverly Sills “a philistine”, because of her introduction of supertitles --- New York Post Opera Critic Clive Barnes
  3. “Over my dead body will they show those things at this house ….. I cannot imagine not wanting the audience riveted on the performers at every moment.” --- Maestro James Levine, in 1985
  4. “That device from Hell” --- (then) Long Beach Opera General Manager Michael Milenski, circa 1995

With time, essentially all opera houses are now pro-supertitles: The Met assuaged Maestro Levine’s concerns in 1995 by installing individual, switch-able screens on seatbacks; Long Beach Opera, a bit slower, first used supertitles at its 2004 Summer Festival; and – for our enduring benefit: LA Opera (LAO) has used supertitles from its beginning in 1986.

Lola, the seductress in Adler & Ross’ Damn Yankees, accidentally summarized the ultimate goal for creating supertitles with her show-stopping number "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets":

“You gotta know just what to say and how to say it.”

To the above, one must, if including the necessary adjunct of displaying the titles, add:

You also gotta know just when to say it … and how quickly!

The “what” and “how” of supertitling was discussed with Dr. David Anglin, Associate Director of Opera and Vocal Studies at CSULB and Dr. Linda Zoolalian, who has done all of the preparing and cueing of supertitles for LAO since 2003, including creating titles for LAO’s education outreach operas.

Dr. Anglin, earned a MFA in Performance Practice at UCLA and a DMA from USC, became associated with LAO in its early days, working as a coach and translator, as well as writing the supertitles for thirty-five productions, beginning with Otello from the 1988-89 season. With the added interim experiences of being an adjunct member of USC’s Vocal Arts Faculty and Opera Program Coordinator for the Sydney Conservatorium in Australia, Dr. Anglin has been the Associate Director of Opera and Vocal Studies at CSULB since 2005.

For this 2017-18 season, LAO is using David’s supertitle sets for Carmen, Orfeo ed Euridice, and Rigoletto. Right now, he is, under the auspices of The American Institute for Foreign Studies, teaching courses in Music, History, and Visual Arts in Florence, Italy.


Dr. David Anglin, with rehearsal pianist Paul Jarski, in preparation for CSULB’s past production of Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann.

Dr. Zoolalian, a graduate of the New England Conservatory in Piano Performance, subsequently earned both Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Keyboard Collaborative Arts from USC. Along with the recent interim experience as a visiting professor at Cal Arts, Linda teaches piano as a member of the music staffs at both Pasadena City College and Glendale College.


Dr. Linda Zoolalian, on station in the Chandler and ready to call supertitle cues.

Linda’s work station is now equipped with a conductor’s monitor of the stage, a vast improvement from earlier days, because her location (in back of the third chandelier at stage left orientation) affords her only a direct view of one-fourth of the stage.

In addressing the “what” of supertitling, David and Linda touched on the subject of how the guidelines for what and what not to translate have evolved with time:

  1. Audience Familiarity With Story: When supertitles were first used, the average audience member was familiar with the opera’s plot, and so it was good practice to use as few titles as possible, allowing the exercise to be a listening, rather than a reading idiom, Now, as the audiences have become younger, it has become desirable to keep the titles up longer or (even) repeat them, if need be. The Pearl Fishers production from the Met had almost every word translated and projected.
  2. Use of Adjectives: It remains good practice to eliminate as many adjectives as possible, because the music, good acting, etc. are ultimately the best way to describe something
  3. Avoiding unintentional humor: [Right away, one can understand that “Das ist kein Mann” should not be translated]. Sometimes it just cannot be avoided: Recently at LAO: in the scene from Carmen’s first act, when Micaëla returns and gives Don José a letter and a kiss from his mother ("Parle-moi de ma mère!"), the sentimentality just didn’t resonate with the millennial contingent in the audience; and when Tosca (in the third act) tells Cavaradossi that he must feign death before the “fake” firing squad, the bitter connotation embedded in this scene was not respected by those audience members unfamiliar with the plot.
  4. Multiple Singers: When more than one artist is singing/speaking, the “how” of a supertitle is taken into consideration by using dashes to distinguish between characters, a technique best used when the action is restricted to two people

The audience is, of course, profoundly affected by the cueing --- the “when” and the “how quickly” of supertitle projection. Dr. Zoolalian accomplishes all this in sequence:

  1. For those sets of titles which are rented [For example, LAO rented The Ring titles from SFO] they are converted from whatever format they are delivered into MS Word or the like.
  2. Linda, working with a piano/vocal score, takes the titles and annotates the score, indicating, now only the “when”, but also the “how quickly”, the degree of fade-in, fade-out, and/or cut [rapid switch] to be effected for each proposed title. One particular title set originated from the UK with zero punctuation, requiring Linda to go through the score note by note, correlating text and music.
  3. Using a software program developed by Corey Cooper for LAO, the set of titles is loaded into the computer, which, in turn, drives the projector.
  4. Throughout the series of technical rehearsals, these initial annotations are revised, reiteratively accommodating inputs from LAO senior staff, the stage director, and the conductor.
  5. For each performance, two people are on-station: Dr Zoolalian, in an alcove, secreted on the west side of the Pavilion, approximately at the Founders’ level, and Curtis Carlson, operating the computer/projector apparatus in the Followspot Booth, located high atop Balcony B.
  6. Each succeeding supertitle is called by Dr. Zoolalian and then executed by Mr. Carlson. Because the link between Linda and Curtis is aural, Linda must call the cue one second (or so) prior to its desired display. For brief titles, this can be difficult to accomplish: During LAO’s Grendel, Eric Owens’ single-word exclamation “Bullshit!” was mandated to be projected. It required high-level precision to avoid giving it away prematurely or looking silly with a tardy projection.

LAO’s Nabucco production, using Stage Director Thaddeus Strassberger’s innovative tactic of audience participation in the traditional encoring of the ‘Va, Pensiero chorus’, resulted in the first-ever all-Italian supertitle:

Va', pensiero, sull'ali dorate;
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l'aure dolci del suolo natal!

Now, having cued the titles for the operatic amalgam of incest, love, eroticism, bliss, ecstasy, hubris, rage, and reconciliation from these past fourteen seasons, we can now look forward to Dr. Zoolalian guiding us through the coming seasons with their rapidly changing recitative, exotic love triangles, bloodthirsty madness, freewheeling satire, awakening passion, betrayal, shame, vengeance, and redemption.

Author: Thomas Lady
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