Opera North Blog

Peter Grimes - English titles

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This production of Peter Grimes, first seen in 2006 and revived in 2008, was conceived and performed without the use of surtitles.  It was originally our intention to surtitle certain passages of the text for this revival, but as rehearsals have progressed we have come to the conclusion that such titling could prove a distraction and potentially undermine the audience’s overall musical and theatrical experience of the work.

Benjamin Britten’s supreme skill at setting English words to music is universally acknowledged.  The register of the text of Peter Grimes ranges widely, between the straightforward and conversational and the dense and poetic.  Britten took great care to set the conversational passages as clearly as possible.  At other times, literal meaning was less important to the composer than the suggestive qualities of the text – when meaning is conveyed at least as much by music, image and gesture as it is by the words.  In the words of our director, Phyllida Lloyd, ‘The composer is clear when he wants to be and densely poetic and veiled at other times’. 

We have therefore decided that this production, which spoke so clearly and powerfully to audiences in previous iterations, should be allowed to do so again in the way in which the composer intended.

Richard Mantle
General Director

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Opera North said ago

Thank you for all of your feedback on this issue, we are currently discussing the approach to take on surtitling in the future and we are taking all of your comments on board.

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nick slater said ago

Wrong call. Decided against going after reading comments about subtitles and the justification does not stand up. It is the same argument that some galleries have about not putting interpretative materials next to the work. It should be the audiences choice as to whether to use subtitles or not. The option should be provided.

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Nick said ago

I emailed Opera North to say that the lack of decent programme notes or alternatively surtitles had taken away a chunk of my enjoyment of an otherwise splendid production. Opera North emailed me a note saying 'sorry to hear that', with a link to the streams of comments on their blog grumbling about it. Why on earth don't they do something about it, rather than tell me that everyone else is complaining too?

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Alexander Jacoby said ago

After last night's staging in Newcastle, I have the same comment as almost everyone else. A brilliant production. Superb singing and playing. Really one of Opera North's best. But the strain of trying to grasp the words did slightly reduce the emotional impact at times - this despite good diction from most of the cast. Decisions of this kind cannot reasonably be made by the director of the production, or even the general manager of the company - nor by the singers and conductor. These people, by definition, know the work off by heart; already familiar with the words, they imagine that they can be readily heard. While I realise that some people in the audience also know the text off by heart and don't need the surtitles, I can't really understand why anyone would disapprove of the titles being there. If you don't need titles, you don't have to look at them. I always read the plot before I see an opera; but I nevertheless find titles indispensible for following the verbal nuances of specific scenes. And they also help me to follow the music - rather than having to expend mental energy straining to catch the words, I can take a brief glance at the titles, and then concentrate on what the composer is doing with voices and instruments. This is obviously a classic production and merits further revivals. If it is given again with titles, I'll be making the journey up from London another time!

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sarah stuart-baker said ago

I have to agree with all the previous comments regarding the absence of surtitles. it definitely detracted from my enjoyment to have to struggle to make out what was being sung and I longed to see them somewhere just so that i could follow and not feel I was missing out on some little point/detail which could add to my interpretation of where Britten's sympathies and particular thematic interests lay. However, I did enjoy the music of course!

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YSPclose2me said ago

The minimilist staging of Peter Grimes brought out the almost unbearable bleakness of this opera and the isolation of Grimes that I found very uncomfortable - especially his brutal treatment of the boy. At an interval someone asked if I was enjoying it and I said "no - enduring it is a better word than enjoying." I remember enjoing other productions that actually had scenery and the Sea Interludes played against a projected moody seascape that was very moving; instead we had Grimes in the middle of the stage in an attidue of despair. The Grand has spent millions on a superb fly-tower that can change a scene in seconds - but it had little to do other than the supsended net. Was the use of wooden palletes an enconomy measure? I didn't like it and felt robbed of a proper production. The singing was as always first rate - especially of the terrific chorus. I didn't miss the sur titles - don't mind either way. The Festival of Britten book was excellent and very good value - enve without the libretto; I will save it with my programme of this year's Aldburgh Festival that I attended- where the best events in my opinion were the three Church Parables - any chance of Opera North doing those?

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Anon said ago

It may in fact be the "purist" approach to leave off the subtitles and let the music/acting speak for itself. Just be aware that in making this choice, you're potentially alienating anyone who's not an opera purist, as I think can be seen in these comments -- the people unfamiliar with the opera and those who are hard of hearing are two good examples. I, for one, found it difficult to follow what was going on despite being familiar with the overall storyline. I frequently had to just make my best guess based on context clues....which definitely took away from my enjoyment of the opera and was rather distracting -- and I know I'm not the only one, as I overheard other people debating (during breaks) what had actually happened in the opera. At the very least, if you're going to do away with the subtitles, make the libretto readily available in print form! I also must stress I think it was a big mistake to print in the Opera North promotional pamphlets that Peter Grimes would be accompanied by subtitles. Because I was informed there would be subtitles (incorrectly, as it turns out), I didn't realize advance preparation would be needed to understand what was going on in the opera!

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Roger Pollard said ago

I am a relative new comer to Opera; whilst I understand the purist view it would have helped my enjoyment of the production if titles had been used. I have the ability, like most people, to multi task and choose on what to concentrate - in fact I like to choose - so please (after all it wasn't a complex presentation) let me have that choice.

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Simon Guilfoyle said ago

I am with Petra Bijs. I like to come to a production without preconceptions so I didn't know the narrative in detail nor the music either. Because much of the singing is choral the specifics of the narrative became lost in the fullness of the sound and I was left guessing about the events and the characters on stage. Surtitles would have clearly aided my viewing and from what I could overhear from other audience members, particularly younger ones, they would have been widely appreciated. The playing was uplifting and some of the moments truly dramatic but the whole didn't work for me because there were too many gaps for me to fill in. Pity

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Petra Bijs said ago

It has been said many times already, but I guess the more people state their opinion on the lack of surtitles the clearer we, as audience, can convey the message. I have seen the production before, I know the story, but do not have a great knowledge of the libretto. I struggled to hear the words much of the time, and this detracted from my enjoyment of the opera. I have excellent hearing but fatigue after a day's work has a similar effect, the strain of trying to follow the words was too much effort at times, and made me disengage from the action on the stage and focus on the orchestra, who never disappoint of course. Of course Britten (or any composer in the past) did not expect surtitles to be used, but it does not follow that we should not avail ourselves of modern technology to aid understanding.

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Alastair Davidson said ago

In a survey some time ago, audiences were asked about the use of surtitles even for English productions and overwhelmingly requested surtitles. Britten would have been most disappointed to learn from the comments posted that his well chosen words were difficult to discern. I would rather have the minor distraction of glancing at the surtitles than the struggle to determine what the singing was about. Don't do this again, Opera North, or you will lose audiences. The musical performances are excellent.

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Pat Gore said ago

For £7 I would have liked to see the libretto included in the programme. As I am not seeing the other operas I thought it was a bit cheeky to charge so much. I agree that surtitles are a real distraction and stop you getting immersed in the drama. I also agree that it was often frustrating not being able to hear the words. So perhaps we could have the option of a programme with them included? The production was wonderful

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doreen nicholson said ago

Gripping performance. Hard to pick the best but did think that Peter Grimes' solo with the wind instrument was perfection as was all the chorus work. Did not miss the surtitles.

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Edward Royle said ago

I heard scarcely a distinct word - partly a sign of aging, no doubt. That didn't detract from the overall effect, with the powerful music and superb chorus (as usual) but it would have been helpful to be able to check on a detail of the plot which one was missing -- too often I asked myself, What is going on now?. One doesn't have to read the surtitles if one doesn't want to. The plot of a MND is better known, so if any opera were going to lose its surtitles, why not that one instead?

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Mark said ago

I'm amazed at how in just a few years audiences have become accustomed to surtitles for opera performances in English. They are painfully distracting – Brecht advocated the use of captions precisely to cause a "distancing effect", to make the audience engage the thinking part of their brain and not get caught up in the emotion of the action on stage. That's fine for some pieces or productions – but the emotional impact of Peter Grimes is quite overwhelming and I for one don't want to be distanced from it. There's nothing to match the rapt attention of an audience completely engaged with a great musical event – which is why it's so dispiriting to be in an audience that's constantly losing attention and shifting their focus from the stage to a screen and back again. You can feel the difference in the audience's focus. It's really depressing to hear Opera North are planning to use surtitles for Death in Venice. If Alan Oke could make his words heard on windy Aldeburgh beach why on earth do you think he's going to struggle in the Grand. Britten set the words to be heard when they need to be heard – eg the recitative with piano – and the result is you feel you're hanging on every word, listening to what Aschenbach has to say. I dread the thought of the climactic "I love you" at the end of Act 1 being reduced to the banality of heads turning to read three words flashing up on a screen half way through. Not even Brecht would wish that on the poor performers.

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Opera North said ago

Thank you everyone for taking the time to let us know your thoughts on this issue. We are taking everything you say on board as part of an ongoing discussion internally about the use of surtitles in future productions. We would also like to stress that both Death in Venice and A Midsummer Night's dream will be performed with surtitles.

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prb said ago

The production was so powerful and intense that I can understand the ON team's decision to dispense with surtitles. They may have considered that the screen in the corner of your eye can be distracting, but not considered that the voice in your head saying "Now what is happening? What did she say?" is even more distracting. If surtitles are not to be shown it is reasonable to expect that at least the programme contains a detailed synopsis, but in the respect the expensive souvenir programme is sadly lacking, so that even those of us who were prepared to do our homework were given only the barest outline of the plot. Such a fantastic production deserves better in this regard and I suggest that for any production without surtitles a full synopsis is made available - free of charge.

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Lawrie Gardner said ago

I always find surtitles a great help because I am deaf enough to have to wear hearing aids. My wife and I both thoroughly enjoyed the opera we just let the beautiful music well over us. So it was a wonderful evening - but, for me, surtitles would have made it even better. We are eagerly looking forwards to "Death in Venice." (That's the opera - not my own!)

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M Garland said ago

I can only echo the many others' comment bemoaning the lack of surtitles. Production and music was fantastic. I have been to operas sung in Italian with surtitles and it was only an advantage, not a distraction. I thought it was my hearing loss but evidently those with much better hearing had the same problem in following the narrative. Please bring back the surtitles.

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David Kirby said ago

The performance we attended on Friday was Wagnerian in its impact - but unlike the Ring cycle we are so enjoying there were no surtitles and this did detract from our overall enjoyment. I hope that there will be surtitles for Midsummer and Death in Venice......please

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richterich said ago

We found the lack of surtitles a disaster as allowing for old age the diaslogue in act1 was usually unitelligible for our dress circle seats Sadly my wife found the music so loud in the storm scene at the end of act 1 that her ears hurt and we left the theatre

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Carolyn Morris said ago

I would have preferred the surtitles. I knew the general outline of the story but not the subtleties of the score and surtitles would have greatly added to my enjoyment. A great production, though, and certainly an afternoon to remember. Shame about the smell of cabbage in the upper circle.

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Susan Peckitt said ago

A wonderful, wonderful performance. I definitely DO NOT want surtitles - it would have ruined it. The poem can be read beforehand or even a resume in the programme. I was completely absorbed and felt part of it - surtitles would have brought me back to the here and now. What I really dislike is the fact that the programme cost £7 - I am sure many people only manage to get to one opera and it seems opportunistic on your part to make us pay for all of them. Please in future let us have the option of a programme just for the performance we are attending.

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Brian Waller said ago

I too missed the sur titles and found that without them I just couldn't make sense of the story other than in the most general terms . This was such a problem for me that I left at the first interval . Please listen to your audiences and don't assume that you can second guess what you think is the right thing to do . I am a regular opera goer and have always enjoyed Opera North productions - but this was for me a disaster . I do not in any way blame the singers - the directors should have known that sur titles are essential , especially to those of us sitting in the balconies where the acoustics are never likely to be perfect .

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James Drife said ago

I imagine that surtitling this particular opera would be technically challenging but I think it would be worth the effort. Two days before attending your brilliant matinee my wife and I saw Northern Broadsides' terrific new play "A Grand Gesture" and happened by chance on the surtitled performance. At the first interval of "Peter Grimes" our first words to each other were "I wish the lady from Harrogate were here". I have good hearing but strained to catch the important words and settled for missing the others We raised a glass to the unfortunate librettist. We were delighted with the performance but I suspect that the words would have enhanced it.

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Una Barry said ago

As the theatre was only half full and on my own, I moved around for each act of the opera. Being able to hear the words varied as to where you sat (and the smell of Chinese food in the Dress Circle!) What also varied was the effort some of the singers made in getting the words across and not being self-obsessed by their voices. Usually it is the higher voices that have problems doing this, but on Saturday, the worse culprit was the bass, and there is no reason for that. I was brought up on ENO, and with the Coliseum as a huge threatre. I am also a singer myself, but since the surtitles were brought into ENO, the words have got worse with the next generation of singers. ENO were criticised for putting up surtitles, but you just cannot assume that everyone who goes to the opera, be it ENO or Opera North, has English as their first language. There were Polish people near me on Saturday. Where does that leave them and understanding anything? Another thing, I wish you could do something better when you DO have surtitles, so that you're not spending the whole performance 'batting' from stage to telly screens for the words. On that account, contradiction as it may seem to what I've said and purely from my own, possibly selfish point of view, I was glad there were no surtitles, but then I've seen the opera loads of times, and sung the arias. Well done though, it was an absolutely wonderful production.

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David Leathard said ago

First praise, and then a grumble. I did enjoy this afternoon's performance of Peter Grimes. The sound of the singing and of the orchestra was wonderful. And thank you for putting on this matinee - I hope you will feel able to do more matinees in future. However - and it is a serious reservation - I very much echo the earlier comments about the lack of surtitles. For me the production suffered because I was unable to make out very many of the words. If indeed the opera "spoke so clearly ...... to audiences in previous iterations" then the previous singers must have had much better enunciation, which seems unlikely. According to the programme Britten went to great pains to get the words in the libretto right, so presumably he would have liked us to know what they were this afternoon. Next time I might be tempted to bring a libretto and a small torch, and risk upsetting other members of the audience. I did fill in a feedback form at the theatre, and the staff there told me that they had received many other complaints along the same lines.

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JWilliams said ago

I totally agree with most of the post and totally disagree with Mr Mantle and Opera North. I was totally disappointed in the 21 September matinee. I do not know this opera and without subtitles it was to difficult to follow the plot. Very disappointed as I had looked forward to this performance. The music was fine but that did not help with my disappointment.

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Jane Cordell said ago

As a deaf music lover I would hope to be able to access fully at least one of your performances. 1 in 6 of the population (and likely a higher proportion of your audience, given the age of opera-goers) has some hearing loss. You need to factor this in to your future plans, otherwise you excluding people from being able to fully enjoy the performance. Jane Cordell, Chair, DaDa Fest

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Janet Wadsworth said ago

I understand the rationale for not displaying titles - the action was so powerful and absorbing that I could not have taken my eyes from the stage for a moment. BUT I really wanted to hear the words at times - Ellen's interchange with the boy etc. Made me want to read Crabbe's poem - or the libretto. I found the whole experience of the opera amazingly powerful and I've thought about little else since Saturday!I

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Opera North said ago

Thank you for sharing your feedback, we're sorry to hear that the lack of surtitles meant that you didn't enjoy the performance as fully as you otherwise might have, we will be taking audience feedback on board when we consider whether or not to surtitle future productions. Very glad to hear that you enjoyed the musical performances otherwise.

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Valerie Kaye said ago

The only criticism I have of this othrrwise wonderful production was that we couldn't hear the words most of the time. If it were not in English I assume there would have been surtitles but without them a lot of the detail was lost. It really did take away from the experience I'm sorry to say. In every other respect it was extraordinarily good so it was a pity to lose out on the meaning of the words.

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CMcCalman said ago

I disagree with the decision to perform Peter Grimes totally without titles. In some parts of the opera they would certainly not be necessary, but in others I feel that they were. I went to this performance with my partner who has not had the benefit, as I have, of having seen many operas or musical performances of this type; I am painfully aware that he did not enjoy the performance as I did because there were many key parts where he could not understand what was happening, due to the dense writing and difficulty of distinguishing what the performers were singing. Although we did purchase a programme the synopsis was very sparse and I know that my partner felt frustrated. At times I also found myself thinking "I'm not sure what's going on, I can't understand what they're singing", even though I am familiar with the piece. Britten may have been very skilled at setting the English language, but the fact remains that when large groups of people sing in English it can be very difficult to get the diction to a high enough level in order to make themselves understood. I have always thought this to be because of the prevalence of 'soft' consonants. Nevertheless, the music is wonderful, and I thought the overall production was fantastic.

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