In January 1983 the Canadian Opera Company lobbed a grenade into the world of opera. Its Toronto auditorium had poor acoustics, and audience members complained about not being able to discern some of the words that were being sung. The solution came in the form of ‘surtitles’ which, like subtitles in the cinema, offered a readable version of the libretto.
Comments, as a 2010 Financial Times article reveal, included the colourful suggestion from David Pounteney, production director of the English National Opera (ENO) that the surtitles were “a celluloid condom inserted between the audience and the immediate gratification of understanding”. The editor of Opera News declared that his branch of the musical theatre was “not a reading experience”.
In saying this, he was not historically correct. As Ellen Rosand makes clear in Opera in Seventeenth-Century Venice - The Creation of a Genre, four centuries ago, a printed libretto (‘little book’) “could serve the audience in the theatre, as an aid to following the action on stage”.
Twentieth century opera goers appreciated some help in knowing what was being sung. Within months of the Canadian initiative, a number of other operatic companies, including the New York City Opera, introduced surtitles, along with English translations of the original Italian, German or French.
Critics naturally questioned the ‘dumbing down’ they believed this to represent, implying that opera goers should arrive at the theatre with a command of the 18th or 19th century variant of the language in which the work is to be performed. Or at least to have ‘learned’ enough to understand the story.
Again, this is a departure from history. As Kaylyn Kinder points out in Eighteenth-century reception of Italian opera in London, the first performances were either translated into English or, when non-Anglophone Italian singers took the lead roles, in “dual-language performances [that] would become commonplace in London”.
Today, surtitles are widely used for opera and theatre. As Lynn Gardner noted in a 2014 article in the Guardian, “In many… cases it is the arrival of surtitles that have really made foreign-language productions accessible to those of us who do not speak or understand enough to get by. Without them I suspect many such shows wouldn't get an English-speaking audience.”
The parallels with wine are clear. On the one hand, there are the traditionalists who see no reason to make wine labels any more comprehensible to most people than a 17th century Italian libretto. On the other, there are those who think that real wine lovers should and will make the effort to learn to read the labels.
In both opera and wine, there is an aesthetic concern. Gardner complains that “Poorly sited surtitles are like trying to hold a conversation in a room where a TV is on. However much you try not to look at them, your eye is constantly drawn towards them, even if you speak the language.” Wine producers who have paid considerable sums to label designers don’t want to muddy the packaging with words.
This being the early 21st century, technology has come up with some solutions. Opera goers can download an app called opera guru and follow proceedings in their own language on their phones—if they don’t mind upsetting the people sitting alongside them, and being ejected from their seat if caught, as keeping phones on during a performance is forbidden. Wine buyers can also scan labels with an app like Vivino or Delectable—if they can be bothered to install a piece of software that’s exclusively focused on wine.
The reality is, expecting someone to use opera guru or Vivino is a like a job applicant expecting a potential employer to research them on Linkedin, rather than provide a resumé.
Of course, those people who buy wine in specialist stores may enjoy the luxury of trained, involved staff who can explain the background of each bottle, but they’re in the minority. Most are far more likely to be standing in front of a supermarket ‘wall of wine’, reaching for the label that looks most familiar. In other words, the label still has to do most of the work.
Surtitles haven’t turned opera-going into a widely popular activity, any more than the use of images of photogenic musicians has helped create a huge demand for classical music albums, but making the genre more accessible has almost certainly helped break down some barriers. And that might be something the wine industry might care to take on board.