Behind the Scenes: San Diego Opera
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Behind the Scenes: San Diego Opera

Charles Arthur, San Diego Opera’s supertitles coordinator, likes being a man of many words.
By David Barbour  

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Charles Arthur at work on supertitles at San Diego Opera
© Edward Wilensky

CHARLES ARTHUR has been supertitles coordinator at San Diego Opera since 2002. As Arthur is the first to admit, it is not a job that he ever imagined doing. “My best friend, Christopher Mahan, was a stage manager at the Metropolitan Opera,” he says. “He retired to San Diego, and the opera drafted him as a stage manager. When he was set to retire, the opera asked him to take over the surtitles job.” Arthur joined the staff as Mahan’s temporary, and then permanent, associate before trading positions with Mahan when Mahan decided to step down for health reasons.

Arthur brought to the job a set of skills that includes conversancy with six languages—English, Italian, German, French, Russian and Czech. “My Czech vocabulary is limited,” he says, modestly. Still, his command of these languages gives him a basic comprehension of virtually the entire opera canon. Arthur calls his life in surtitles “the accidental profession,” adding, “I’m a molecular biologist by training, but I became allergic to chemicals in the lab, so I went into scientific publishing, spending twenty-two years working for academic publishers and Reed Elsevier.” The latter company, he adds, “was moving its offices to Amsterdam, and I didn’t want to learn another language.”

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© Edward Wilensky 

Arthur’s preproduction work involves preparing the surtitles if the company doesn’t have an existing set. “Usually, they try to get me next year’s operas at the beginning of the season,” he says. “That way, I get the chance to see if we have something in the vault. During our period of almost-extinction, they let all the surtitles get away. We were able to get some back, but, out of our base of sixty, there were only about twenty left.” 

The next step involves marking up the score to place the surtitles and condensing them to fit an eighty-eight-character screen. “It’s like a Tweet, except Tweets are longer,” he says. “It can sometimes be very difficult, if the music is very fast, not to keep the audience’s eyes on the screen.”

Once rehearsals begin, he says, “We worry about continuity—do the props and stage action match what we’ve written? Is it a pink bonnet or a tan one, a gun or a rifle? There are also blank titles, to cover moments where there is music and no singing. We call them ‘outs.’” Other considerations include length, comic timing, and splitting and joining titles. “We try to make it as seamless as possible,” he says.

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© Edward Wilensky 

Arthur consults with each production’s director regarding “things he may want said to advance the plot line or the atmosphere he is trying to create. We also worry about idiom. Often, we have someone skilled in the language to help us. One example—I can’t remember which opera it’s from—is ‘One pope dies, they make another,’ which translates as ‘Don’t sweat it.’” Some works are easier than others, he says: “Trying to translate Pushkin, you’re doomed, because he jams words together, like the Germans do.”

The surtitles are put into a computer program called Libretto. “I believe we’re the only ones using it,” Arthur says. “We can take surtitles from PowerPoint or any number of sources and put them into that. Each title gets a ‘Go’ cue.” During performances, he says, he and his operator are in the lighting booth, with a score and a monitor on the conductor.

“We do surtitles for English operas, too,” Arthur adds. “We did them for The Pirates of Penzance, including the dialogue, which was a good idea, because the performers were using Cockney accents.” And how does he deal with rapid-fire tongue-twisters such as “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General”? “Let’s simply say that, between us, there’s usually less than a second’s delay between the time I give a ‘Go’ and the title appears. In the final verse, [the singer] doubled the time. There were only four titles, but they went by very quickly.” spacer 

David Barbour is editor in chief of Lighting and Sound America magazine. 

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