There was an intriguing surprise at a fine performance of Carmen last week; the surtitles carrying the translation of the French text were not only in English but also in Chinese characters. This was the first use of Chinese by Opera Australia; I understand that Chinese surtitles will be used for those operas scheduled for numerous performances, like Carmen.
These performances will be marketed to tourists in particular and we know there are many Chinese tourists. The use of languages can be fraught. In the early 1990s with the first great waves of Japanese tourists, one of the major hotels taught its front of house staff some phrases in Japanese with which to greet the guests. This didn’t go down so well when the staff used the phrases to greet Korean guests mistaken, unsurprisingly, for Japanese. The hotel quickly discontinued the practice.
Surtitles were introduced at the Opera by my predecessor, Patrick Veitch who had seen them in their infancy in the United States. They were embraced by audiences here well ahead of their introduction at Covent Garden and the Met. They work even for operas performed in English, Voss in 1986 being the first of those. Surtitles have transformed the operatic experience for most audiences; they may well do so for Chinese speakers. On the concourse outside is a huge illuminated sculpture of a dog in honour of the Chinese New Year of the Dog. May the takeover continue in these peaceful ways.
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