Supertitles, also known as surtitles, are translated or transcribed lyrics/dialogue projected above a stage or displayed on a screen, commonly used in opera and other musical performances. The word “surtitle” comes from the French language “sur”, meaning “over” or “on”, and the English language word “title”, formed in a similar way to the related “subtitle”. The word Surtitle is a trademark of the Canadian Opera Company.
Supertitles are used either to translate the meaning of the lyrics into the audience’s language, or to transcribe lyrics that may be difficult to understand in the sung form. Titles in the theatre have proven a commercial success in areas such as opera, and are finding increased use for allowing hearing impaired patrons to enjoy theatre productions more fully. Supertitles are used in live productions in the same way as subtitles are used in movie and television productions.
Generally projected above the theatre’s proscenium arch (but, alternately, on either side of the stage), supertitles are different from subtitles, which are more often used in filmmaking and television production. Originally, translations would be broken up into small chunks and photographed onto slides that could be projected onto a screen above the stage, but most companies now use a combination of video projectors and computers. The text must be prepared beforehand as in subtitles. They are also used for events other than artistic performances, when the text is easier to show to the audience than it is to vocalize.
Lofti Mansouri, then general director of the Canadian Opera Company introduced this innovation to opera in their January 1983 staging of Elektra.
New York City Opera was the first American opera company to use supertitles in 1983.
Boheme Opera first initiated its supertitles in 1993 with its debut production of Gounod’s Faust at the Trenton War Memorial Theatre.
OPERATION OF SUPERTITLES:
The supertitle is given an insertion point in the score (piano score) for the supertitle’s entry and exit. A musically-trained operator follows the score as the performance unfolds, pressing the “right” directional arrow on a laptop to flash the next line of text. This individual attends rehearsals and hones timing, planning that each line of text will show up just as the singer begins the line. Reading off cues in the score, the operator runs a PowerPoint slideshow that could be between 500 and 1,100 titles, depending upon the opera’s length and wordiness. Timing each title line is key. Too soon, and one may give away a punch line or plot point. Too late, and one makes the audience impatient to catch up. Supertitle operators are often opera pianists, conductors and/or coaches, highly trained in the scores from which they read. Oftentimes, an opera experience for the audience can hinge on the accuracy of supertitle timing. Other elements of supertitle success include strength and clarity of the projector lens, font style and size, as well as building and placement of the screen itself.