Entering Opera

by Sonya Friedman

By the late ‘70s, I was well known for my subtitles for foreign films, mainly French* and Italian**, but also other languages, even Czech.*** So John Goberman, the producer of the tv music series “Live From Lincoln Center,” called me with what he thought was a normal request: “I’m doing an opera, live on TV, and want subtitles for it.”

I gulped. “How does one do titles for a LIVE opera?”.

“Oh,” he said. There was a long pause. “I thought you would know.”

“Ok,” I said, “let’s have lunch, bring your tech people, and we’ll figure it out.”

For subtitles for film you indicated the start and end points of each title by giving the lab the exact footage – i.e., 135 feet, 3 frames (these days, indicating digital time codes). But for a live performance? I had no idea.

I met with John and his team, then decided that after seeing the opera, I’d listen to it multiple times on tape while following the Italian libretto (for “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”). Then I’d sit in on the tv rehearsals to get familiar with the timing of the singing as well as with the camera shots.

My titles would be typed into a chyron – the same device that projects tv texts onscreen: names and scores for football games, for other sports events and for concerts. I would call up each title by pressing an “on” and “off” button, hopefully in synch with the singing. But I also wanted to avoid having a title go over a camera cut (a switch from one camera, one “take,” to another), because that makes the title seem to jiggle on screen. So I got a copy of the libretto that indicated every camera shot: which camera would be “on” and what it would show: i.e., camera 1, close up of Rosina; camera 4, full shot of stage; camera 3, close up of Figaro, and so on.

Timing my titles by following the camera shots, I could avoid having a line that I wrote for Rosina appearing over the face of Figaro, who was also singing at that time, now on camera.

So far nobody knew how this would work. Including me. Then the PBS executive who was enthusiastic about John’s novel experiment in presenting live opera subtitles to the tv audience, had a suggestion. The last camera rehearsal would include my rehearsing the titles, “calling” them, hopefully in synch with the singers and the camera shots.  That rehearsal was a life-saver. First of all, we learned that it could be done, and looked pretty good. Secondly, it calmed everyone’s nerves.

On broadcast night, we produced the first live tv opera with subtitles. But nobody outside the tv crew saw them. PBS was worried that we’d screw up, that the experiment would be a disaster. So that telecast did not include subtitles. PBS had arranged for me to fix the titles afterwards in the tv studio; the titles would then be added on the rebroadcast. John called me soon after to say the titles were ok; they looked fine! No need for this big fix. And sure enough, the rebroadcast went on with English titles for “The Barber of Seville,” a splendid New York City Opera production by superstar Sarah Caldwell (stage director and conductor) with the wildly popular diva Beverly Sills.

There was a big viewing audience. And then the letters poured in, thousands of them. People appreciated having subtitles, adored them, wanted them for all future opera broadcasts. PBS got the message. For our next televised opera, “Manon,” PBS widely advertised in print and on radio and tv: “You can follow the story because, for the first time ever in a live telecast, there will be subtitles on the screen.” The telecasts were the subject of a major editorial column in the New York Times, praising the introduction of opera subtitles, and my work.

I had entered the world of opera.

*French: Godard’s “Weekend,” and films by Truffaut, Clouzot, and others.
**Italian: films by De Sica, Rossellini, Fellini, Petri, Monicelli, Bolognini, and others
***Czech: Milos Forman’s “Black Peter” and “Loves of a Blonde”

In the 50’s, MGM had an enormous distribution of its films worldwide. To accommodate viewers in foreign languages, their NY office trained a couple writers in the craft of writing subtitles, narration, and dialogue. I was one of those lucky trainees, and went on to a career subtitling many foreign films by leading and upcoming directors. I am interviewed about my career in this video: https://vimeo.com/93793577