As a rule I tend to be a strong supporter of surtitles supplementing opera productions. This tends to be the case even when the opera is in English, often because it compensates for the impact of proper singing on proper diction. No titles were employed, however, at the performance of Four Saints in Three Acts, the opera by Virgil Thomson composed for a libretto by Gertrude Stein, which I saw last night and wrote about this morning on Examiner.com. Thomson wrote music that was perfectly compatible with the qualities of proper diction in the English language, and clarity of diction was one of the great assets of last night’s performance.
Nevertheless, this was a Stein text; and Stein had a great enthusiasm for the interplay between English as it is written and English as it sounds. During the preconcert “conversation,” we in the audience were told not to worry if we had trouble finding meaning in the flow of Stein’s words. Indeed, we were even told that we should feel free to laugh if we found some of the oddities of her constructions funny. (Did Stein’s supporters really think she needed to be protected against feeling of ridicule?) However, these supposed authorities never got at the premise that Stein was actually being playful in her writing, and she was at her most ludic when it came to the relations between sounds and text. (These are, after all, the fundamental relations of opera. If you are going to commit to writing an opera, you can hardly ignore them.)
Often it is hard to read a Stein text without suppressing the urge to diagram it. Syntactic structure is part of the game, as is ambiguity of that structure. Listening to Stein, ambiguity is compounded by the games she plays with homonyms. Thus, however clear the singers’ diction may be, if you really want to get into what Stein has written, you deserve to see her written text while hearing the singers perform it. The titles need to be there for the sake of the nature of the written artifact, rather than as compensation for poor diction. I had some advantage last night from having seen the written text many times, but I still would have preferred to see the titles.
There is an interesting precedent to this approach, by the way; and it has been around for some time. Back in 1966 I was fortunate enough to see a pre-release print of a film now listed in IMDb as Passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. True to its title, it was an effort to dramatize selections from Joyce’s novel involving literal readings of the text for each of those selections. The whole thing had subtitles. They were absolutely necessary. There were too many layers of structure in the text for it to be “processed” by anyone who had not memorized it. Joyce himself was a singer, so he had a personal appreciation for the relationship between written and sung text. By watching this film, I appreciated how critical that relationship was to the way he conceived his texts. Without the subtitles, I would have been totally lost.