Why English National Opera is wrong to tinker with its surtitles

Stuart Murphy, ENO’s chief executive, says that from next season one performance in each production will be shown without supertitles above the stage.

That, he argues, will underline ENO’s commitment to singing in English.

There are serious flaws to this argument.

1 Many of ENO’s singers are foreign imports whose diction is questionable.

2 Some of the English singers pay little attention to articulation in their native tongue.

3 On the deep Coliseum stage, words get lost unless they are pronounced right at the front.

4 The audience is increasingly accustomed to watching television with surtitles.

5 The majority of the audience, in their mature, years, expect surtitles as standard.

6 This looks like another bit of virtue signalling from ENO’s boss to divert attention from the company’s spiralling problems.



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  • Then fix issues 1,2 & 3.

    4 is specious: viewers are watching television programs with subtitles for languages that they do not understand. Are there English language TV broadcasts with subtitles in English?

    What evidence do you have for 5?

    • News programmes often have subtitles, and many tv sets are programmed to provide them, with a ‘switch-off’ option

    • As an American, whenever watching a British show or movie on DVD, I definitely switch on the English subtitles. I remember years ago before there were such things, watching “Prime Suspect” on public television, then going into work the next day, and asking everyone what the detective said when he turned around to sneer at Helen Mirrin. Nobody could figure it out.

  • One resounding plus point for ENO is that they will be mounting Birtwistle’s ‘Mask of Orpheus’ in October. Long overdue.

  • Not only should ENO keep its English surtitles, it should ascertain what second most common language its audience speaks and broadcast that language as well. Or, perhaps, show the original language text alongside the English. I was recently at La Fenice, watching Traviata, and I was delighted to see that the surtitles were in both Italian and English (at the same time).

    Indeed, all opera houses should offer bilingual surtitles – a drawback, for instance, of English surtitles at Covent Garden is not knowing what the original text is. How about both? Or these houses should go the way of the Met, and offer your choice language on a small screen on the back of the chair in front of you.

  • Diction standards must then have slipped since the days I was a regular ENO audience member and subtitles were never used. And it was not normal to engage singers whose first language wasn’t English.

  • Nobody can understand a bloody word of the singers weather local o foreing but specially of American ones
    Retain the surtitles please and better still,sing in the original lenguages,Italian,french or German as intended by composers and libretists.

  • I’m surprised that there’s still an audience for opera in the language of the audience rather than the language of the composer/librettist.

    The ENO is really a throwback to pre-war days when opera in the language of the audience was more common. Personally, I don’t see the appeal of opera in the language of the audience.

    • Gianni Schicchi is really funny when performed in English. Subtitles just do not convey the humor effectively.

  • I remember attending a performance at ENO years ago of Damnation of Faust. Good seat. Being a newbie, I didn’t realize that everything there was sung in English and wondered at the tenor’s lousy pronunciation. I didn’t realize it WAS in English until Sir Willard White made his appearance as Mephisto.
    Later I saw Ariadne there. The Prolog was delightful (largely because of the way Strauss set the text, not to mention the Majordomo’s spoken lines). But once the Opera itself began, intelligibility was reduced to near zero.

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