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Could You Be an Opera Translator?

Interview with Jeremy Sortore

It was on a hike in the Colorado mountains that I first talked with Jeremy Sortore about what he does as an artist. As impressive as is his background in voice (he holds a master's degree), acting and teaching, what really intrigued me was his experience as a translator for super- or sub-titles for operas. This interview is an extension of that original conversation, focused on what the job truly entails, how one gets to do it, and what are the pluses and the minuses of the job.

How did you get to work as a translator for opera super-titles?
I'd always been around an opera company because my mother worked for an opera company when I was a kid, so it was always in the back of my mind. When I was in school doing my undergrad in music and voice, I was cast in an opera and realized that the opera company at the school was gonna need title and I stepped in. I just asked the director if I could do the translation and they offered to pay me, probably a little less than they would have had to pay someone else, and that's how I got started. So I built up quite a library as I was going through school and then started advertising when I was done with my masters and already had a library available to rent.
How did you end up becoming a professional translator?
It was a process. At first I was just working with the university music departments, and then other universities' music departments, and from then it went on to small semi-professional companies. After a certain point I had enough experience doing that that the professional companies nearby started taking notice when they needed somebody to operate the titles. From there I started doing their translation as well. It was step by step.
Do you specialize in one language or do you translate them all?
My most comfortable language is French although I end up translating a lot more Italian than French, simply because it seems to be what is produced a little bit more, so I'm becoming more comfortable in the Italian. So far I just have French and Italian libretti, and a translation of the Magic Flute because I had done the show couple of times and I knew it very well, but German is my worst language.
What are some of the main challenges you encounter when you translate?
The most difficult thing is to show up to work because I do it all by myself, so consequently when I get up in the morning the hardest thing, as it is for any writer I think, is to sit down and start. Once I've made that commitment and sat down for the day and decided that I'm at work, then it's fairly easy to stay focused. It's a discipline because nobody is really keeping track of me, how much I work or how little I work. So that's the most challenging thing. But from a technical standpoint, the main concern with translating is trying to find a balance between being too literal and taking too many liberties.
How much creativity do you have when you translate?
Some. Certainly nobody, from an audience's perspective, wants to sit there and read a word-for-word translation of what's on stage. It doesn't flow very well. The purpose of the title is not to give you the complete libretto, it's just to help you follow along. It's not supposed to be a poetic device as much as to help an audience member follow the plot and not be lost. So often I have to work with directors who have really disparate views on how literal or non-literal the translation should be.
So it is a collaborative project.
It can be, and it is becoming more so for better or for worse. When I first started I would just show up at my job and nobody paid any attention to the titles, so I had complete freedom in what I was doing. With some of the younger directors that are coming along now, directors who have never known opera without titles, the titles are a real integral part of the production. A lot of the older directors still leave me to my own devices and some of the younger directors are very hands on. And it's difficult because sometimes they have very different views about the translations.
I worked with someone recently who wanted a very literal translation, and so I had to end up re-writing most of the translation to be nearly word-for-word and I hated it, but as the super-titles author coordinator, I'm not particularly high on the totem pole as far as getting to make those decisions, so I had to redo that one. And I found that the next time I tried to do a translation, my bias was a little more literal. So the next director told me: "you translated too much." So I had to go back and redo that one. So it taught me a lot. It taught me to stick to my guns.
How much in advance before an opera is produced are you given the job?
I do most of my translations right now for Opera Colorado. They have been very generous in the past year or two to give me my contract for the entire year all at once. So that gives me a lot of time to plan and figure out when I'm going to do the translation in between other jobs and performances. At Opera Colorado we do both translations in English and in Spanish. So I write the English translation and send it to a Spanish translator, and they translate my translation. It's not the ideal situation but it is much easier to find and English-to-Spanish translator than it is to find a French-to-Spanish translator. I like to give that company a month before I will need it back a week before using it in tech rehearsals.
I like to give myself about three weeks to get through the score. The preliminary translation takes me one and a half to two weeks, and then I spend some time polishing it and making it more readable.
How should a young person go about being an opera translator?
Obviously, languages are really important. I minored in French in college, and Italian wasn't a difficult step to take from the French, because so much of the grammar is similar. When I sat down with a dictionary I found that I could translate an Italian libretto fairly easily. Language coursework was indispensable for me. I was always the voice student who was really good about doing a lot of translating of my own material, so that was something that I was used to doing. So it didn't seem like such a daunting task to sit down with an entire opera score and try to do the whole translation. It still takes a lot of time and sometimes it is very tedious work, but that was something I was willing to do because it wasn't completely foreign to me. So language and practice, and aside from that, the best advice I have is to do what I did. Talk to someone local, to someone you know already and see if they're going to need a translation and if so, if you can find a win-win situation. They might pay a little less than they would normally and you get your first job.
What else did you do in terms of advertising yourself?
I found a list of opera companies through Opera America. They have budget tiers, and I knew that the Met wasn't probably gonna be interested in my translation right now because I'm sure they have a lot of people to do that, so I started looking at some of the smaller companies and some of the companies that may not have used sub-titles up to that point and may be interested in going in that direction. I also contacted a lot of university departments. I went online and got the contact information of directors of various opera programs in academia.
What is the pay scale of a title translator?
My rates are extremely flexible depending on who I'm working with. I charge a lot less for university programs or my alma mater. I sort of know what their budget is and how much they can afford. I try not to price myself out of range for those companies. Often I base my rates on how many performances, how large their venue is, and from there I can get a sort of a rough idea of what they might earn in revenue and ticket sale, and from there I can judge how much they might be willing to spend. Some smaller companies may only be able to give you $500 for the rental and then they will find their own person on staff or volunteer to run the titles. Some of the larger companies will pay you royalties like any of their other designers, so you're talking in the thousands for that. That's for rental and licensing. I get two contracts from Opera Colorado, an authorship contract and an operator contract.
Can anyone make a living doing just that?
Probably not. There might be one or two people in the States that make a significant amount of money from that because they rent all over the place. I remember before I started doing titles for Opera Colorado they had somebody that they had worked with for a very long time. I think it's harder and harder to make a living at it, because in 1983, 1984, around the time when opera companies first started using titles, there were probably only a few people that knew anything about it. Now, most companies hire somebody in house to do their translations.
Could a non-musician do that?
Non-musicians could, but I find that being a musician is so much more helpful. Part of my process in preparing the score is listening to it without really looking at the text, and making marks in the score where I feel that a slide transition would not be distracting. I try to make the slide transitions happen at logical places in the phrase structure. I think that it takes somebody with some musical sense to operate the titles because the timing of the operation is very crucial in that aesthetic so that it doesn't look mechanical or on a timer, like a machine is doing it. So that if it's a slow and soft aria, maybe the singer comes in with the first phrase and the slide might lag behind a little bit, or fade in more slowly instead of popping up there.
I've been to so many operas where there might be humor and the audience will laugh before the right time because they're done reading the title. Is that something you're aware of when you write, to make sure that people laugh at the time where it makes sense in the music?
I do try to do that, both as an author and as an operator. That's one of the most satisfying things when I'm running the titles, and that's one of the reasons why I prefer running a comedy, because you get to feel responsible for the audience reactions sometimes. As an author, what I try to do is if there is a funny line, I try to break it up into two slides so that the operative word of the punch line begins its own new slide, so that I can time that to happen with the corresponding operative word in Italian or French, so that the audience laughs at the right time. I have had singers thank me for that, because it is so much more fulfilling as a performer to have the audience laugh in the place where it makes sense.
So you have to be good at languages, good at music, and you have to be good at technology as well because you program it all yourself.
The technology isn't too terribly difficult. I make sure that the companies that I rent to know that I am not a hardware person, or a software person. I just send them the files and they need to have their own technical staff make sure that it runs with their system. I'll do everything that I can to help that, but that's not my expertise. I write in power point and I also write in a program named Innovation by Figaro Systems that a lot of opera companies use for their seat back titles, where you get to read the titles on the back of the seat in front of you.
What is your most favorite aspect of the job?
I love that I get to be involved in productions that I wouldn't otherwise be involved with. I get to have some passive income when I get to rent some of the translations to some other companies. I've already done the work and I send a score in the mail and collect a check. I like the sense of being connected to many companies all over the country and having some contact throughout the industry.
Any last piece of advice?
Having a lot of different skills, especially as a music student, has really allowed me to have a lot of freedom to pursue my performance career to a certain degree. I think that a lot of students feel that there is a stigma to developing ancillary skills that are not purely related to your ideal career path, as if that's some kind of cope out or admitting defeat. But having another job is not always something to fall back on, it's something to support you in the time that it takes for your performing career to manifest itself. It's about having something to do in the field before you succeed.

Copyright © 2010, Geraldine Boyer-Cussac.

Geraldine Boyer-Cussac is a music director, pianist and vocal coach for both musical theatre and classical music. She moved from France several years ago and she will graduate with a Doctorate In Musical Arts from Boston University in 2011. Always looking for tips and ideas on how to live a successful life as a performer, she shares her findings on her blog, Geraldine in a Bottle (