Berlin to abolish opera surtitles

Berlin to abolish opera surtitles


norman lebrecht

February 23, 2016

The Staatsoper says it cannot afford to instal seatback surtitles in its renovated house.

The building work is running way over schedule and budget. The extra million Euros for surtitles, administrators say, would wreck the finances.


It’s a petty and ridiculous decision, one which will limit the company’s appeal to foreign visitors. They need to think again.


  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    I’ve always thought it’s a stupid idea to have surtitles on the back of the seat in front of you. It’s impossible to look at the stage and the seat in front. It’s also irritating like at the ROH when sitting in the stalls circle (which I try not to do). If I can see on the screen above the stage, all the time I’m aware of letters moving out of the corner of my eye – the titles on the backs of seats. Quite why they modernised the House with poor sight lines is beyond me.
    Let Berlin have the titles above the stage only it’s fine.

    • Brian B says:

      My experience with back of seat titles is quite different. You can choose not to turn them on and if your seat neighbor has them on you can’t really see the display. If it’s Boheme or Ballo (Maschera not delle Ingrate) I don’t want them. When it’s Maometto or Krol Roger I like them.

  • Simon S. says:

    Indeed a rather ridiculous decision. According to the rbb article, there will be (as before the refurbishment) surtitles on a screen above the stage – the old way. I guess this will be in German only.

  • Peter says:

    Good news. Surtitles are known (among those who care to know) to reduce the enjoyment of the music.
    While it has also benefits at times, the disadvantages are bigger. Certainly a convenience feature, that is not only not necessary, but also distracting from the music.
    Read here.

    • Halldor says:

      And if music was the only thing that mattered in opera, that might be an argument.

      I look forward to the survey showing how scenery, costumes and acting also distract attention from the score.

      • Anon says:

        Utter nonsense. Scenery, costumes and acting are a synaesthetic part of the whole art form.
        Electronic screens for subtitles are not.

        Having the screens at the back of the seats puts enormous stress on the eyes needing to refocus between far stage and very close screen all the time. Having the surtitles above the stage is much, much better, since the eyes need to travel much less laterally and in focus/distance.
        The only feature not available with stage surtitles is the multilingual translation.

        From the educated point of view, there are more cons than pros for having individual screens in the seatback. Of course people don’t think so, because convenience features like this always appeal to the quantity of audience, even if being on the cost of quality.

        • Eddie Mars says:

          I think you need to change your irony settings from “block” 😉

        • Anne63 says:

          “puts enormous stress on the eyes needing to refocus between far stage and very close screen all the time”


          Just a thought.

        • AnnL says:

          There’s nothing to prevent it from showing surtitles in German and English. Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam has surtitles in Dutch and English and Zürich opera has surtitles in German and English.

        • Tom says:

          The libretto is an essential part of every opera and thus understanding what is being sung is of great importance. Not everyone in the audience is fluent in Russian, Italian or German.

      • Petros LInardos says:

        Most regietheater productions definitely distract me from the music and the libretto.

  • May says:

    I think if there is any opera house in the world that doesn’t need individual surtitle monitors, it’s Staatsoper. Not just the native audiences but also the foreigners tend to be the most passionate and educated opera-goers that you’ll find anywhere. I’ve often seen patrons come to the opera with a pocket-size libretto that they read during intermission. I can see how people like them so much, however if it’s a good staging, you shouldn’t have to be dependent on them to enjoy the opera.

    • Olassus says:

      Well, you know, it’s about the 7th largest / 7th busiest opera company in Germany, so let’s omit the superlatives.

      • Peter says:

        What has a competent audience to do with the size? Berlin has some of the most, if not the most, music minded audiences in the whole world. Maybe its because among the big cities in Germany, Berlin is also the monetarily poorest. Makes for less societal status visitors and for more art lovers. Maybe.

  • Frank says:

    If my google translate reading is correct, they’re still going to have them on a screen above the stage – just not on the seatbacks. Dropping them altogether would be a real setback for those who prefer a more inclusive opera experience that’s open to everyone.

  • Ks Christopher Robson says:

    HURRAHHH!!! Surtitles on the back of seats are just a stupid idea as they take your eyes even further away from the stage action than overhead surtitles (which I think should also be scrapped – HATE them!).

    • Olassus says:

      Seat-back ones can be turned off, an advantage over the overhead kind.

    • Bill says:

      I totally agree with you Chris. I have always thought surtitles are the invention of the devil. I have been going to the opera for over 40 years (I started when I was 11) and I was always encouraged to read the libretto or look at the score before I went. Modern day audiences are just lazy.

  • Jane says:

    There are other modern ways to have access to personal titles. In Australia we caption shows for the deaf and this is transmitted via wifi to you phone , I pad and or other electronic screen. bring your own I say and take the pressure off the venue. Buy an app and switch on your wifi

    • Stefano Bozolo, OperaVoice Startup says:

      Hi, all these comments very interesting. I have been committed with surtitles in theatre since 1996, in Florence, Italy. Opera di Firenze does normal surtitles, ITA & ENG. We invented a system to send them multilingual on mobiles. Have a look at I’d like to deepen 2 issues about the discussion: 1) no surtitles at all it’s denied by the audiences, in a few years all OHs in the world have adopted the titling service, in Italy we have it for italian operas as well. Patrons complain when the service is not available. Back seats screens only at La Scala, very old and obsolete, they need huge amount of money to deploy, upgrade and check. I totally agree with Berlin. 2) smartitles, subtitles on mobile: we strongly support this solution, the A/R glasses will be the killer app, but for now we are committed in sponsoring the use on mobile in limited zones, for instance on the balcony, where their disturb is limited and the patrons are aware they are allowed.

  • Gary says:

    I think the Deutsche Oper in Berlin has surtitles in English as well as German.

  • Gonout Backson says:

    O MY GOD! Does it mean the singers at the Staatsoper will be forced to use DICTION?