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Farrell Fan

Are opera plot synopses necessary?

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Manhattnik had a post recently about how he used to think that a ballet requiring a plot synopsis in the program was a failure. This was an opinion I shared, although, like him, I'm willing to make exceptions now.

I still hate reading them, though. And I'm even less fond of reading opera synopses, especially now that English supertitles, surtitles, or seatback titles make it easy to follow the action as it unfolds. Why is it necessary to know in advance what's going to happen? If one is a regular operagoer, one knows what's coming, but it shouldn't be necessary for a first-time viewer to know. I'm reminded of what Toots Shor (an early-American historical figure) supposedly said when someone took him to Hamlet, "I'll bet I'm the only one here who doesn't know how this thing comes out." In my opinion, that's an enviable position to be in.

To the best of my knowledge, Broadway and off-Broadway theaters still don't print plot synopses of their shows -- not even of Shakespeare or the Greeks. In this connection, I'm curious about the current Metropolitan Opera production of "A View from the Bridge." I'm sure there was no plot synopsis in the Playbill for the original Arthur Miller play -- but I'm willing to bet the Met program for the William Bolcom opera has one. I'm also curious whether Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme" has a plot summary in the Playbill.

I don't mind printed background notes on an opera or ballet, and I usually look forward to reading them after I get home. But when I'm at the theater, I'm eager to go on with the show.

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Good points, FF. And there is a long and honorable school of thought that says that the only thing that matters is what goes on on the stage. Bournonville has a great quote about opera and ballet. I paraphrase; too lazy to get out Mit Teaterliv tonight. "It is ballet's tragedy that its audience will not put up wiith the same nonsense that opera audiences love."

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I used to feel that way, but taking a newbie or two to the ballet and the opera changed my mind. There's a language barrier – a literal one in opera, a figurative one in ballet – and if you don't provide first time and occasional viewers with a little help, they might be frustrated at not understanding what's going on, or missing things, and not return to try again. (Shakespeare's English is archaic, but it's still English, and if the actors know what they're doing it can be quite easy to follow.) You don't have to read the synopsis if you don't want or need to, but it's nice to know it's there.

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I'm going to agree with dirac. If the newbies know what is going on and they have something they can refer back to they enjoy it more. Especially if it a ballet with a lot of pantomime (like Giselle) or it is a historic opera with a really complicated plot (anything political).

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I agree, also. It doesn't hurt to have a synopsis in the program, many people find it useful. (In the case of the recent Eifman season, I also found it hilarious, but that is another matter......)

I used to violently object to projected text in opera, now I am just used to it and it doesn't bother me at all. I am getting more accepting as I get older, I guess.....

I'm also curious whether Baz Luhrmann's "La Boheme" has a plot summary in the Playbill.

It does. Also the projected text.

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I didn't start going to opera until the early '90's and by that time all the major houses were using supertitles. I like them. I think they help the audience stay engaged, especially in the comedies.

I like program notes. Often the more the merrier as far as I'm concerned. I also usually guage how well I like something by the amount of the program I have read. If I've read the entire thing, I didn't like (I was more interested in the program than the performance. If I read none of, it means I loved the performance (couldn't keep my eyes off the stage, therefore didn't read the notes). Simplistic, but accurate.

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The supertitles SF Opera used to have drove me bananas. It was a big black line across the top of the stage, and unavoidable unless you were in the orchestra seats. Now they're on the side, to the left and right, and although they're still unavoidable unless you're in the orchestra seats, they're much less obtrusive.

I admit they help more than they hurt. The effect can be a little jarring in comedies, though, because people are reading the laugh lines and the yocks start coming too soon or too slowly.

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The best titles I know of are those at the Metropolitan Opera House, where they appear on a little horizonal strip on the back of the seat in front of you. They have to be turned on at the start of each act, but you don't ever have to turn them on at all. In any case, they cannot be seen by the person in the next seat.

By contrast, the supertitles at the New York City Opera are in white type against a black background at the top of the stage. Maybe it's me, but when the stage is brightly lit, I have to strain to see them. I agree they are especially distracting in comedies. At NYCO's Gianni Schicchi earlier this year, the audience laughter totally destroyed Lauretta's aria "O Mio Babbino Caro." On the whole, though, I think the titles have made a big difference for the better.

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