Some thoughts on performing Wagner in a language the audience doesn’t understand

On Sur-Titles in Wagner

During the recent San Francisco Ring, the projected sur-titles informed the audience that the Norns had once laid cable at the World Ash tree, and were unclear where they should connect the cable they were working on now.  Mime asked Loge whether he had been “raised in a barn;” Wotan referred to the Giants as “oafs” and “cretins;” Fricka called the Walküres Wotan’s “tomboy daughters;” and Brünnhilde, dismayed at Wotan’s command to bring Siegmund to Walhalla, complained that her “munitions seemed heavy.”  

The (uncredited) San Francisco sur-titles became increasingly jarring as the Ring went on.  Some, like pointing out a character hiding “behind the iron cart,” were done to fit the staging – that is, the character was indeed hiding behind an iron cart.  Much of the text that was sung on stage was not displayed on the sur-titles, giving first-time viewers a vastly incomplete understanding of the action of the drama.  And some was simply odd. 

At least three issues are raised by this state of affairs:  (1) Why display words that Wagner didn’t write? (2) Is there something about sur-titles that necessarily limits an audience’s enjoyment of a performance? And (3) why have sur-titles at all?

WORDS WAGNER DIDN’T WRITE.  Wagner didn’t write that Brünnhilde’s “munitions” were heavy.  But then again he didn’t write that her “shield” was heavy either.  He wrote “Schwer wiegt mir der Waffen Wucht.”  Practically every word of a simultaneous translation of a Wagner performance is a word Wagner didn’t write.  So that objection is unhelpful on its face.

Does one draw the line by insisting that each English word be a faithful translation of the original German word?  I wonder what is gained by that restriction.  Brünnnhilde is saying, surely, that she is sad and distressed.  Couldn’t she be heavy of heart, or of shield, or of spear, or of rifle, all equally suggesting the meaning of the author?  The proposition that data cables might be, to us, the same as the woven ropes of fate were to 19th century Germans is not in itself preposterous.

But in San Francisco there was an additional concern.  These were sur-titles “with an attitude.”  The ethos of the production permeated the rubric of the titles.  We were too often not seeing such lines as “yet power will bring me delight” and yet we are seeing entire concepts that had little relation to the spoken drama.  The offense was not that words appeared that Wagner didn’t write, but that a style of dialogue was set forth that was not the style that the performers were themselves saying.

INTRINSIC LIMITATIONS TO EVEN THE BEST SUR-TITLES.  There is a point at which a discussion of the adequacy of particular sur-titles must halt because, at root, sur-titles are inherently inadequate.  The actor portraying Wotan says, in Walküre Act II scene ii, “The Walküre [pause, pause] goes her own way” (except he says it in German).  The author had the character consider his words before speaking them; the sur-titles, on the other hand, give the entire sentence all at once.  The American audience responds to the sur-title, not to the actor, and the moment of sensitive indecision that Wagner wrote is lost.  When Mime is cajoling Siegfried in Siegfried Act II, the San Francisco audience found the sur-titles to be knee-slapping as soon as they flashed up, and were denied the delight of Mime’s sly and comic delivery of “I simply want to chop… your… head… clean… off!

Sur-titles certainly grant access to a work to an audience that is not fluent in the language of that work, and have had an enormous impact, I don’t doubt, in creating new and more appreciative audiences for Verdi, Puccini and Mussorgsky.  But they have also taken audience focus away from the action of the drama itself, and created the anomalous situation where the performers are acting, while the audience is reading.

Why do we put up with this?

ALTERNATIVES TO SUR-TITLES.  When we attend Moliere’s Miser, we do not see it in French with sur-titles.  Nor Chekhov’s Three Sisters, nor Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.  Instead, we see them translated into English (or American).  Why do we not attend translated opera? 

Many opera-goers will offer their own answer to this question.  The words don’t matter; it’s the music that counts.  The words fit the music and the author’s matching of vowel to note is sacrosanct.  If it matters that much, then you should study and memorize the words so you understand them.  The work must be given as it was intended to be given and it is up to you to come up to it, not it to come down to you.

All of this is, of course, nonsense.  Maybe in some Verdi or some Mozart the words don’t matter — at least the specific words, the ones that keep being repeated over and over during “Sempre Libera” for example.  But Wagnerian music drama is not a symphony and a Wagnerian performance is not a musical recital.  (Just look at the difference in budget between Washington Opera’s concert performance of this Götterdämmerung and San Francisco’s staging of the work.)  If Wagner created anything, he created a merging of music and theatre before an audience that understands them both, and that is swept up to a clarification of who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed, by experiencing a total work of art, depicting epic events in a language that they understand and by which they are inspired.

What do we get instead?  A museum experience.  We look through a glass to see an “authentic” work of art from Europe, displayed to show all its wonder.  A piece of theatre that is performed before audiences who do not understand what is being said.  We would not put up with it outside an opera house.  Why do we put up with it inside one?

Doing Wagner in an incomprehensible language would be merely laughably ironic were it not such an appallingly disgraceful betrayal of his ideals.  It was Wagner who built a special theatre for this work, and who posted a note backstage on opening night, pleading with the singers to mind the consonants because the vowels take care of themselves. This much and more did he care that the audience understand the words he had written and the story he was about to reveal.  Why do we think it is respectful to perform it with neither the consonants nor the vowels making any sense whatsoever to the vast proportion of the spectators?

As shown above, translating the words while they are being incomprehensibly sung is no solution.  Clearly, for the Ring to have real impact on American audiences it should be performed in American.  A true Wagnerian would consider this an inevitable conclusion.  Why is it dismissed as radical?  Andrew Porter’s translation was gloriously sung at the English National Opera in the 1970s, as the magnificent recordings attest.  Why is it not used?  Why do American audiences think it is somehow “worthy” to attend theatre, the performance of which they do not understand a word? 

Wagner in English.  Let’s go.

One Comment

  • I see your point, especially in the use of slang, but generally did not find the surtitles jarring. I thought they were consistent with the updated staging and the environmental and feminist themes of the production.

    I do agree with you that the timing was awry so that the audience sometimes responded prematurely, but this is often a problem with surtitles in opera. One of these days the directors will take classes from karaoke producers so that they learn to get the timing right.

    I also agree that, in the context of a very realistic, American staging where everyone, – gods, dwarves, giants – was all too human, the singing in German was in some ways anachronistic. But it would not always be appropriate – the language is part of the Gesamtkunstwerk concept and in many (most?) other stagings it would be better to stick to what Wagner wanted us to see and hear.

    If the opera is to be sung in English, two further issues would arise: whether or not to update the language – do you have the Norns weaving their “ropes”, or do you have them untangling their “cables”? And do you still use surtitles? The ENO eventually capitulated to the satisfaction of the overwhleming majority of its audience. the absence of surtitles on the grounds tha the opera is sung in English would certainly have been a major problem in San Francisco which is nearly 50% larger than the ENO and where the orchestra, good though it was, frequently overwhelmed the singers, especially the basses and baritones.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *