WNO’s World of Translation

3 October 2023
Figaro stood holding papers in hands

Essential ingredients for an opera performance include the many costumes, singers, sets, orchestra and … translation? You may not think it, but translation is a vital part of almost every operatic production, so let’s explore some more about this crucial and valued part of our Company that helps our day-to-day run smoothly. 

As a sung art form, opera naturally uses languages from around the world. While common operatic repertoire includes the traditional Italian, German, and French languages, opera has also been sung in Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Swedish, Chinese, and Welsh, among very many others. There are even operas that use a multitude of languages, examples being Philip Glass’s Akhnaten (English, Egyptian, Hebrew, and Akkadian) or Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex (Latin and the language of the audience). Translation is now an essential part of how audiences make sense of what is happening on stage.

One of the major uses of translation at WNO is for our surtitles, a screen above the stage that projects the opera’s libretto (the text or lyrics) in translation so that audiences can understand what’s going onstage in their native language. Coming from the French word ‘sur’, meaning over or on, surtitles are still relatively new to the opera world, WNO having first used the new technology in a 1994 production of Der Rosenkavalier. Today WNO uses English surtitles for all our main-scale performances and at all our touring venues, as well as Welsh surtitles in Cardiff and Llandudno.

Of course, opera can be performed in translation too. In fact, this was the norm before surtitles were introduced to the world’s opera houses. For example, our recent productions of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and WNO Youth Opera’s Cherry Town, Moscow, were performed in English, where the original libretti were in Italian and Russian. Opera can put untraditional twists on translation too, such as WNO’s 2023 production of The Magic Flute where the German libretto was re-translated into modern English by the opera’s director, Daisy Evans.

As a proudly bilingual Company, everything that WNO produces is in English and Welsh which can often mean an awful lot of translation for our Welsh-speaking colleagues in the Audiences team. Luckily, WNO works with some brilliant translation agencies who help us in every aspect of our work from marketing material, programme notes and articles, press releases, digital and social media content.

As well as Welsh, WNO often needs translations in concert programmes for many other languages in addition to Italian, German and French. In recent years WNO’s community and engagement work has meant that the Company has used translations in Farsi, Sorani, and Arabic, most recently in WNO’s production of The Shoemaker in collaboration with Oasis Cardiff and Fio. We always enjoy venturing out and adding more languages to our repertoire, and this Season’s Ainadamar marks the first time WNO has ever performed a main-scale opera in Spanish.