Surtitles: A brief history

7 September 2021

The fear of not understanding can be a deterrent to opera attendance, but a huge barrier was taken away with the widespread adoption of surtitles in the 21st century. 

In the early 1900s most singers spent the greatest part of their careers as members of an ensemble in their home country. Opera houses usually performed in the language of their audience, or else perhaps in Italian since that was conventionally deemed the language of opera. By the late 20th century, performances of popular operas in most leading houses across the world were being given in their original language. The strongest argument for this is that the composer had the sounds and stresses of the libretto in mind while composing.

Surtitles were first introduced by Lotfi Mansouri, who was then the general director of the Canadian Opera Company, in their January 1983 production of Strauss’s Elektra.

The word ‘surtitle’ comes from the French word ‘sur’, meaning over or on, and the English word title.

Critical opinion was divided from the beginning. In 1986 Rodney Miles - who was the editor of the British journal Opera - wrote ‘You go to the opera to listen and to watch, not to read’ while a singer’s agent wrote in to say that surtitles ‘vitalised audiences and made them much more aware of the music drama at hand’.

By the year 2000, John Rockwell of the New York Times thought that the value of surtitles was obvious to all. He wrote ‘complex operas are rendered instantly comprehensible and engaging to a wide audience.’ By 2002, the New York Metropolitan Opera went as far as to place its titles on seatbacks, a method later adopted by several opera houses, including the Wiener Staatsoper, where each member of the audience can choose from a selection of six languages in which they would like to read their titles.

More controversial was the use of surtitles for vernacular-language performances. In 2005 English National Opera announced that it was introducing surtitles in response to public demand. Despite the opposition of many ENO staff, it was argued that very few could hear the words clearly in such a large theatre however carefully a singer enunciated. 

Surtitles were first used by WNO in a 1994 production of Der Rosenkavalier, conducted by Charles Mackerras. An audience survey of the first night at the New Theatre was overwhelmingly positive, so the Company decided to use them for all operas sung in languages other than English. The first few sets of surtitles were hired from the Royal Opera House, but the majority have since been translated by former WNO Dramaturg, Simon Rees.

Today Welsh National Opera have English surtitles for all our main scale performances, as well as Welsh surtitles in Cardiff and Llandudno. We use a programme called Glypheo, and surtitles are shown on screens above the main stage, as well as on repeater screens in theatres where restricted vision would prevent the audience from being able to see the surtitles clearly. The surtitles are prepared by the WNO Dramaturg and operated by WNO Music Staff, who sit in a box in the theatre, following a queued score, and click through each line of text on Glypheo.