The Magic Flute, Language and Surtitles


Earlier this year, I went to see yet another opera (surprise, surprise). The experience I had I think lends itself better to a short discussion of some of the things involved in opera, rather than necessarily the opera itself. Do let me know what you think, especially if you saw the production in question.

The production I’m talking about is Opera North’s new 2019 production of ‘The Magic Flute’ by Mozart. Mozart operas always intrigue me, because often the music is relatively simple and formulaic (that’s not to say bad), yet the ways in which they are adapted and interpreted for modern performances are often very creative and exciting. I’d say that this one was no different - there were some astonishing visuals including projections onto the stage, something that just could never have happened when the work was conceived. James Brining certainly did a fine job in his realisation of a dream-like fantasy world, and made a very good attempt at making sense of some of the more nonsensical aspects of the plot (especially those which are thinly-veiled freemasonry references) actually make some sort of sense, even if that did mean playing around with the ending a little.

My point is, this was a production designed to be accessible to all. One key decision that was made was to have the opera performed in English, with no surtitles. The idea, I think, is that audience members can simply watch the opera in a language they understand and not have to look anywhere else to read any words to understand what was going on. This is a really good idea, and one which many opera companies have used in the past. Here’s the issue though - I couldn’t hear what was being sung most of the time. There were a number of reasons for this - firstly some performers seemed weaker in terms of projection and diction. While I could hear some of what some of the characters were singing, there were certain performers who I eventually just gave up trying to listen to. Secondly, it’s arguable that the language of English isn’t the best to have an opera in - our vowels don’t seem to be easy to get across in operatic style, which, even if you can clearly hear what’s sung, means the words sound unusual anyway. Thirdly, and quite simply, the orchestra must have been playing too loudly at times.

The result was that they might as well have been singing in a foreign language, and without the surtitles, I had no idea what the characters were saying to each other. Granted, their actions gave some clues, but there came a point in what was actually quite a long performance that I gave up trying to hear what was being said, and therefore was not really all that enticed. I believe that decisions to make the production more accessible actually backfired and acted as more of a barrier to entry in the end. Some people might also argue that an opera should be sung in its original language, as sometimes the words are used just as much for their musical sounds as their literal meanings. I think in this case though, English was a good shout for accessibility’s sake.

So how would I solve it? I’d put English surtitles up just for the song sections. That way they can support what I’m hearing, meaning my attention wouldn’t need to be on the words the entire time, and just glances would suffice in order for me to get enough meaning from what’s happening on stage to keep me occupied and engaged. This is coming from me though, as somebody who wouldn’t necessarily go and watch some Mozart for its musical content. Perhaps that would be enough to keep some people engaged, although I’d wager that wasn’t what the production team would have wanted to rely on in this instance.

This issue is really quite complex and doubtless a lot of thought had gone into every decision made, and there might well have been a very good reason why surtitles were totally omitted that I haven’t touched on, so it would be unfair of me to actually pass judgement. Nevertheless I thought this was an interesting topic and I’d love to hear anybody else’s views on the matter.