Scott Brooks


The Aesthetics of Translation in the Total Artwork: Operatic Surtitles and Their Interactions with the Stage

The composition and styling of surtitles can take a diversity of forms and, depending on the intended audience, may have either a greater or lesser impact on how the action of the stage is interpreted. Occasionally controversial, surtitles at their inception were decried by some purists, with James Levine himself declaring, in 1985, ‘Over my dead body they will show those things at this house’. Opera as a genre is entering a new and in many ways uncertain phase, however, and the ambition to remain a strict purist is becoming ever more tenuous.  The aim of the present study would be to examine in close detail the interplay between various modes of translation in the form of surtitles and their dramaturgical impact. Italian is a highly idiomatic language, much more heavily-laden with metaphor than, for example, English, and how the translator chooses to reshape the libretto can itself affect the reception of the drama. Should the translation seek accuracy over aesthetic appeal? How should repetition, in the case of Classical opera and Romantic Italian opera, be handled by the translator? How intimately-interwoven with the particular production’s interpretation should the translation be, and should coherency with a director’s vision take precedence over adherence to the spirit of the text?

I intend to discuss my own experience in writing surtitles, as well as to analyze the translations and libretti of contemporary opera companies, particularly English National Opera, the premiere company that still presents its operas in English. My hope is to be able to describe a kind of formula or template for the composition of surtitles and the approach to translation that might be more objectively considered effective than mere differences of taste would suggest.


Scott Brooks received his PhD in English literature from the University of St Andrews, in 2013. His research focused on the tradition of a philosophy and idealization of music in the Renaissance, how such ideas helped to shape the ‘New Poetry’ being formulated in Elizabethan England, and, in particular, the influence of early Italian opera and the work of the Florentine Camerata on John Milton. He moonlights as an opera singer, is currently enrolled in the MMus in opera performance at UBC, and will make numerous principal soloist appearances in Vancouver this coming season.