“I won’t understand what’s going on”
“Don’t worry, there’ll be subtitles”
I thought my colleague was joking. He wasn’t.
A neat, green, two line, high resolution display hangs above the top of the curtain line. For each new line of dialogue or song a translation of what is said appears.
For first time visitors to an unfamilier (or any) opera, like me, these two glowing lines are a lifeline. Without them you would quickly get lost, irritated and then distracted from being able to enjoy the whole experience. Your attention taken up with constantly trying to second-guess what the characters are saying and how that links to your vague memory of the synopsis you read the evening before on Wikipedia.
For me and many other first timers it’s almost essential. I assume that when surtitles first appeared they caused a disapproving response from more seasoned opera goers. Fears expressed about people being distracted, the text not reflecting the actor’s delivery, the timing and pace destroyed , etc. These are real worries, but often the public face of a feeling you don’t want to show.
Sharing something you love and appreciate can be difficult, especially with people who might not give it the reverence you feel. If you build a tight connection, that’s not something you always want to share, it feels like yours, not everyone else’s.
Think of any cult film that finally builds a wider audience or your favourite punk band that then ‘sold-out’ when everyone else got to love them. Didn’t you feel robbed when everyone else starts talking about them, made them less exclusive, less yours?
It’s hard to open something special to you up to others. Even if it means a better existence for the performers and creators; bigger audiences, more album or DVD sales. They’re able to carry on doing what you love them for doing.
But there’s the chance someone new will like it as much as you do and then you and if you really love something enough to keep it to yourself, then you should love it enough to share it. Better still, you can then enjoy it together.
Don Giovanni was well performed, an impressive production with a fantastic Leporello by David Soar. But I’m also thankful to the green two line crutch, which let me share something in so much more detail and to all those people who loved it enough the let the surtitles stay.