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October 21, 2010

Orchestras, concert presenters need to learn from opera and add supertitles

Earlier this week, I had an all-too-common experience at a classical concert that involves the sung word.

In this particular case, the performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 by the Mariinsky Orchestra at the Kennedy Center, there were no texts provided in the program book, and that's an awfully text-filled piece of music. A few days before that, when Concert Artists of Baltimore performed Schumann's Mass at the Gordon Center, the texts were thoughtfully provided, but the lighting was thoughtlessly kept down, so the effect was the same as if there had been no texts. In both situations, I guarantee you that a substantial portion of the audience was left in the dark.

I know my Mahler and I know my Latin Mass, but I still enjoy the opportunity to follow along with a text if I feel like it during a live performance. But I suspect

many people don't arrive knowing the score, as it were, and they may well leave the hall feeling less connected to the music simply because they couldn't relate.

I think about the poetic thickness of Goethe's "Faust" (Part II), which forms a big part of Mahler's Eighth. How many non-Germans memorize that? That Schumann Mass poses a little challenge, too, since the composer set some liturgical lines not typically included in used in a classical musical treatment. Even a text we all think we know very well -- the "Ode to Joy," for example, in Beethoven's Ninth, performed by the NSO a few weeks ago -- may not really be understood in much detail by everyone in the audience. (Kudos, by the way, to the NSO for not only having the Beethoven text, but also one for the contemporary vocal/orchestral work on the program, and for providing sufficient light.)

And don't even get me started on voice recitals, where the poor singer is wailing away -- songs in German by Schubert or in French by Faure -- while listeners are staring blankly back.

Now I know you can lead some audiences to water, but can't make them read. Many's the time I've noticed

people simply ignoring the opportunity to get more closely involved, even when texts are in the program book handed to them and the lights are left strong enough to read them easily. I wonder if some folks don't realize the stuff is there, and what's it for. Maybe someone should just make a friendly announcement before the performance.

But what I really think would do the trick -- I'm hardly the first to suggest this -- would be a version of the supertitles that caused such a sensation in the opera world back in the 1980s. I say it's way past time for orchestras -- or the halls they rent -- to invest in some version of this technology to be called into service whenever repertoire with words (especially in languages other than English) gets programmed. I hasten to add that I've seen this done on rare occasions, but it should be rule.

It's too much, perhaps, to ask of every concert presenter, chorus or vocal recitalist to have such a system, but I have seen it tried out by some modest-budget organizations with nothing more than a laptop and a screen. And I still think it would be money wisely spent.

The cool thing about using projected titles at a concert is that people can't drag out the complaint still occasionally heard about their use at the opera -- that it distracts people's attention from the action onstage. On most concert occasions, everyone just stands and sings anyway. So nothing would be lost, and so much gained, if audiences could effortlessly tune into the words just by glancing up or over, or wherever screens could be installed.

And once you can get the vast majority of a concert hall on the same wave length, the communal experience of performers and listeners has got to be more intense and fulfilling. Hey, using a supertitle-like system would even qualify as a green (at least green-ish) initiative -- saving money on paper to print translations.

Everyone says they're interested in attracting new audiences to classical music and energizing existing ones. Ensuring that they're in on anything being sung seems like an awfully obvious way to help.


Posted by Tim Smith at 7:06 AM | | Comments (7)
Categories: Classical, Clef Notes


Tim --

I am very glad you made this point about the text. (I actually mentioned this to Ann Midgette, who I saw at the concert, and she didn't seem very concerned; people listen different ways, of course). I am quite familiar with the Mahler 8th, but I certainly don't know the details of who is singing what without a libretto (which pater and which mater is which).

I attended with my wife, who doesn't know the piece, and while she loved the music, she did find it frustrating not to know what the characters in Faust were going on about.

The NSO usually does provide texts and keeps the lights bright enough to follow, but I do think surtitles are preferable (the NSO did use surtitles to name the sections of The Wooden Prince when Ivan Fisher conducted it last year). We heard a Gurrelieder a few years ago with the Pittsburgh Symphony which employed surtitles, and it did add to the experience.

Thanks for the comments (and the agreement). The ease of titles would be so much appreciated, I think, by a lot of people. It's so much easier even than glancing at a program book. TIM

Oh, how right you are, Tim. Singers need to remind concert promoters of the need for at least printing the text in the program and leaving the lights up so that the material can be read. Titles don't have to cost the world, either. They can easily be arranged for a concert hall and will enhance the audience's enjoyment considerably.

Thanks for another yes vote. And, as I said, even if cost were steep, the payoff is potentially so great that the expense should be embraced. This now rather old technology still beats anything else I know, including Tweated or texted program notes. I don't know why titles haven't spread more often from opera to concert hall. TIM

I would not use titles when the words are "especially in languages other than English." It is just as important when they are in English. When I listen to recordings of Benjamin Britten's songs in English (I wish that Britten's songs were performed in concert in Baltimore occasionally), I can't understand most of the words without the CD's lyric sheet. Some of these songs are poems by Blake and Hardy, among others, and it would help to see them even if one could understand them.

Totally agree with you, Tim. I was at Carnegie last night for same concert of Mahler 8, didn't have time to brush up on the text beforehand, the text insert was missing from my program book, and couldn't understand a word anyone was singing. I'm very accustomed to titles from going to the opera, and it seems only logical that there should be titles for "sung" symphonies and suchlike.

I attend Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va. For our first program, we did the first five songs from Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn". We had an LCD projector and portable screen set up so the audience could follow along wit the singer. I thought it was a very smart move.

Thanks for offering that fine example. TIM

Every year at our church we do one or two major choral works and, because we have people who worship in English, Korean and Spanish, that means we do our supertitles in all three languages (plus, in this case, the Latin text). The most difficult part (aside from getting the text translations inputted) is finding a computer operator who is musical enough to get the images up at the correct time. However, it can be done, as we have demonstrated.

Wow, that's an ambitious use of titles. But I love it. Thanks. TIM

I find supertitles very distracting, and prefer the text in the program book. That way I can read if I choose to, and can keep the book closed on my lap if I choose to just focus on the music.

I'm fine with the program book, too, but I keep seeing too many people not taking advantage of that, and I think such folks would be more likely engaged with titles. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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