A Time There Was, A Time There Is
It was in 1985 that the Metropolitan Opera's music director, James Levine, was quoted in an interview as saying, "Over my dead body will they show those things at this house. I cannot imagine not wanting the audience riveted on the performers at every moment." On August 20th of this year, The New York Times's front page carried an article alleging that the Met was planning to end its holdout on "those things"-supertitles-perhaps as early as the 1994-95 season.
Because of the house's dimensions and the height of its proscenium, the type of supertitles in use by companies such as the Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, and New York City Opera would not do, and the technological wizards are hard at work at this time, evolving a new approach to electronic opera translation, perhaps a blueprint for tomorrow's opera houses. At any
event, the Met's attitudinal reversal signals the end of an era.
Eras, of course, are always ending, although it takes some establishments longer than others to reconcile themselves to the passage of time. While we, approaching the 21st century, have no more hours to dispose of each day than did our forefathers in days of yore, the way in which we opt to use our daily 24 does change from age to age.
Consider the late Hans W. Heinsheimer's reminiscences in his delicious memoir Best Regards to Aida (Alfred A. Knopf, 1968). The veteran "music man on two continents" writes about the pleasures of going to a concert in Vienna between the two world wars: "From the office you walked just a block and a half to the Kaffee Kremser on the Ringstrasse, where you remained till concert time. No subway, no traffic lights, no Sorry Garage Filled, no waiting in line for a gulped-down dinner. In the spring and the autumn you sat under the trees, watching the streetcars and the girls go slowly by. In the winter, you sat inside in wonderfully stale air, preserved for generations, at the very marble-topped table where Brahms had breathed the same mixture of chewed cigars, fried eggs, old newspapers, and wet overcoats. All your friends were there when you arrived from the office at four, looking at you with raised eyebrows if you were delayed by an emergency until four thirty."
Heinsheimer goes on to contrast the past with the present: "I have often thought what this walking distance, afternoon-siesta, coffee-and-billiard conditioning has done for music when watching the haunted, harassed, exhausted music lover of our time emerge from thundering subway trains, drive around choked blocks to find no parking space, wait in line to be permitted to wait in another line to eat, drink, be pushed on an escalator or just to breathe, already looking at his watch and his wife, wondering whether there will be a taxi afterwards that will not wave an off-duty sign at him as the final, crushing chord of the evening."
The western world has been through a stunning realignment since those leisurely late afternoons in Schlag-saturated Wien a lifetime ago. Opera performances and symphony concerts are no longer entertainments for the privileged few (or the professionals and paraprofessionals who served them). In making the commitment to feed, clothe, nurture and educate the many not yet the most, by any means!-we have admittedly done away with many of life's and leisure's accoutrements. Moreover, those of us destined to live in urban (and suburban) centers are probably subject to greater pressures of time and to more slings and arrows of indignity than were our ancestors on either side of the Atlantic.
In addition, there has been more to learn about more things than ever before in the history of man, without the (at least peripheral) knowledge of which we would be ill-equipped to meet the requirements of contemporary society. Just think of what your children have assimilated as a perfectly standard vocabulary and compare it to your parents' (or perhaps to your own). But that vocabulary has been acquired in the same time frame that mankind has always had, no more hours, no fewer. True, it has meant that some things had to go, that some of life's niceties and many of a classical education's components had to be dispensed with in favor of the morass of material through which we trudge.
Which brings us back to the Met's supertitles. If we accept that opera is more than a string of tuneful arias but that it is music theatre that must be understood to be fully grasped, then it follows that we must readjust ourselves to the time in which we for better or worse live, a time in which it is simply no longer feasible for most people to master a
clutch of languages, or to concentrate on committing an opera libretto to memory sufficiently to allow for instant comprehension, simultaneous to stage action.
We even graduates of distinguished havens of higher education literally cannot afford to let nostalgia for a bygone age of literacy-of-the-few forfeit the potential cultural sensibilities of the many.