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What Are Surtitles?

Greg Brian
Greg Brian

Surtitles™, a trademarked process and business name from the Canadian Opera Company, describes a specific type of projection system that shows the translation of the words during an opera. The term is sometimes used without a trademark symbol to describe the same process in general terms. Several techniques to project translations have been used in opera houses worldwide. A surtitle process generally does the translations on large liquid crystal display (LCD) screens, but other techniques are used, including the use of smaller electronic displays by viewers' seats, digital projection and the use of reflective panels. Although some critics say that audience members can be distracted by surtitles rather than investing in the emotion of the performers on stage, research has shown that the majority of audience members prefer to have them available.

The term "surtitles" shouldn’t be confused with the word "subtitles." A subtitle is translation of a foreign language in movies or television. In the word "surtitles," the "sur" comes from the French translation of “on” and refers to the titles being projected onto a surface.

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Woman painting

When the Canadian Opera Company began using surtitles in a 1983 production of the opera Elektra, other opera houses took notice. It wasn’t long after when the New York City Opera started using the technique. Since then, nearly every opera house in the world has used the process in one form or another.

In the beginning, the Canadian Opera Company used slides and slide projectors to project the words on a large screen. The screen usually was on the stage’s proscenium. By the early 1990s, the same company began using video projectors to project the words.

A common 21st century technique is a specialized computerized system. This method provides a discreet LCD monitor on the back of the seat in front of each audience member. By pressing a single button, it translates the words into any language in white letters against a black screen and no distracting, ambient glow. The Metropolitan Opera in New York City was one of the first opera houses to use a similar surtitle technology. Some opera houses that have smaller budgets use high-definition projectors that project the words onto large screens.

Another, less-common surtitle process that was designed for the hearing impaired makes use of reflective panels. An audience member can be given a reflective panel and set it up on the arm of his or her chair. The reflective panel picks up a mirror-image projection of the words on the back wall of the opera house.

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