In a concession that marks a minor milestone in intelligibility, the staid Metropolitan Opera of New York, the country's most prestigious opera house, has finally agreed to install a system that provides simultaneous English translations of works being presented. It's about time.
The Met was the last major holdout of the "purist" school that held the great works of the operatic literature must always be performed in the language in which they were written -- regardless of whether the audience had a clue to what was going on onstage. During the 1980s, most American opera houses, including Baltimore's, adopted the practice of providing English surtitles projected above the stage that at least conveyed the gist of the dialog, if not the poetry of the original libretto.
For the first time, watching an opera became an experience akin to seeing a foreign-language film with English subtitles. Coupled with the emergence of superstar performers like tenor Luciano Pavarotti, Kathleen Battle and Jose Carreras, whose performances reached millions through recordings and public TV broadcasts, the result was a greatly expanded audience among people who formerly would have been intimidated by the language barrier and a gradual return of opera to its original roots as a truly popular form of entertainment.
The Met's long-standing policy in fact ran counter to operatic tradition throughout the 19th century in most European countries. There, national opera companies were formed specifically to perform the great classics in the audience's native language. Thus when Wagner or Verdi was performed in Paris, their librettos were routinely translated into French for the benefit of French-speaking opera goers. The same went for Puccini and Bizet in England. Opera could hardly be entertaining if it were incomprehensible.
We always suspected there was a certain snob appeal to the Met's intransigence, a relic of the company's aristocratic origins in an era of mass entertainment and the democratization of high culture. Now anyone can understand the tortured plot lines, improbable coincidence and stunning reversals of fate that are opera's stock in trade. That should be music to the ears of anyone who has ever squirmed in his or her seat trying comprehend the grand passions when the fat lady finally sang -- Heaven forbid! -- in Italian, French, German, Russian or Czech.