"Celluloid condoms between the audience and the immediate gratification of understanding."

"More like watching Playboy TV than having sex."

Hyperbolic outbursts are not uncommon in opera, but rarely were they so concentrated or, um, vivid.


FOR THE RECORD:
Opera supertitles: A May 19 article about the history of opera supertitles misidentified director Graham Vick as Graham Vickers. —

What riled opera so?

Supertitles. Translations usually projected above the stage have driven directors to issue bomb threats. No less than James Levine rashly stated he would rather die than acquiesce.

Three decades after they were invented by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, what was once an anathema's anathema is now recognized, even if grudgingly by purists, as the most important change in opera in years.

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The motivation for introducing the titles was to make opera more accessible for audiences beyond the usual suspects. Before supertitles, opera houses could pretend in good faith that their audiences were au fait with enough Italian and German to follow along with such standards as "Il Barbiere Di Siviglia" or "Die Zauberflöte." Something like Janacek's "From the House of the Dead," with its libretto adapted from a Dostoevski novel and then translated into Czech, however, was something else entirely.

Before the 1960s, composers expected to change the language of the text to match the language of the audience. Performers either stayed in their native country or sang the role in the language they learned it. Imagine what would happen today if Tosca replied to Cavaradossi in French? It's not as ridiculous as it sounds.

In 1781, Mozart wrote to his father, "the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music. Why are Italian comic operas popular everywhere in spite of the miserable libretti? … Because the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it all else is forgotten."

Recordings pushed classical music into a new orthodoxy in the 1960s and most operas were sung in their original language. In the English-speaking world, only English National Opera and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis routinely produce all their shows in their audience's native language. For everyone else, the sanctity of the score is it.

One of the biggest obstacles in the development of supertitles was working out exactly how to display the text. The light bulb went on when John Leberg, the Canadian Opera Company's director of operations in the '80s, saw an Italian musical with projected scenery. On Jan. 21, 1983, using a typewriter, 1,000 glass slides and three projectors, the COC's production of Strauss' opera "Elektra" became the first in history to be titled.

The opera house trademarked the invention as "surtitles" to honor Canada's bilingual heritage (sur means "on top of" in French).

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"Surtitles caught on like wildfire, and within six months over 100 companies adopted it," said Gunta Dreifelds, a member of the COC title development team. The titles spread first in North America, then to other English-speaking countries, such as England and Australia, and then across Europe.

"Now it's expected. You can't put on an opera without surtitles."

David Smythe of Perth, Scotland, has been going to the opera for nearly 45 years and remembers well what it was like before title ubiquity.