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
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 noticedpeople 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.
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