The company’s new system caters to patrons from around the world, but how long before we see something similar in Australia?

The Vienna State Opera has replaced its 16-year old seat-back system with a new setup offering opera libretti in up to six languages and, soon, the chance to order drinks and snacks.

The original system, which was commissioned in September 2001, made subtitles in German or English available in every seat at the push of a button. The displays were found to be distractingly bright, however, and the technology was subject to an increasing number of faults, exacerbated by the scarcity of the requisite spare parts.

Vienna State Opera’s new subtitle system. Photo © Lemon42

Since the opening of the company’s 2017/2018 earlier this month, subtitles are offered from suitably dimmed screens, in English, German, Italian, French, Russian and Japanese. A pre-performance information system provides such useful things to know as plot synopses, cast lists, and any general current news to do with the activities of the company. Audience members are able to view a list of frequently asked questions, or subscribe to the Vienna State Opera’s monthly newsletter.

The system is automated so that the information programme switches to the subtitle options just before the beginning of an opera performance, or, in the case of a ballet, turns off entirely. And in the near future, further adaptions are planned so that guests can even order their interval snacks or drinks from the comfort of their own chair.

Several other opera companies around the world have been diversifying their sub- and super-titling options in recent years. In New York, the Metropolitan Opera has been building on their custom-designed Met Titles system since 1995, and today it offers opera translations in English, Spanish, German and Italian. Opera Australia’s annual outdoor production Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour has allowed the audience to follow along in either English or Chinese since last year.

Will we be seeing similar systems adopted in Australia? Conveniently, Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini was in Vienna when Limelight approached him for comment, and had just been using the new system first hand. “The system works very well,” he said. “The machine is either in the back of the seat, or just above it, and you can just push a button and select whatever language you want.”

“It’s extremely beneficial for [tourists] to be able to read the text in the language that they’re most comfortable with,” he said. “As you know we’ve started surtitles in Chinese for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour and we’ll be doing more of that in the opera theatre too, in the Joan Sutherland Theatre when it’s open.”

So are seatback systems something Opera Australia is likely to use in future? “The trick is making it as unobtrusive as possible, so that you don’t detract from the performance and having it in the back of the seat is a fantastic solution to that,” Teraccini says. “Hopefully in the future we’ll be able to do that at the Sydney Opera House and [Arts Centre Melbourne] and so on.”

“That’s certainly what other tourist destinations or other opera houses in the world that have significant [numbers of] tourists attending are doing,” he says.

Victorian Opera’s Managing Director Andrew Snell is also positive about the benefits of multilingual subtitle options in the opera theatre. “One of our main missions is to make opera accessible to broad audiences and we are always exploring different ways to extend our work even further,” he says. “[Vienna State Opera’s system] is a great way to both connect with and attract audiences, particularly ensuring many tourists can understand and enjoy performances in their first language.”

But he also sees a number of challenges for Australian opera companies. “Implementing such a system in Australia, while beneficial to certain audiences, is more difficult given opera companies in this country don’t own their home venues,” he says. “Victorian Opera, for instance, uses a range of different venues across Melbourne.”

“There are only a few companies in the world that have in-seat surtitles, and to the best of my knowledge they are only offered in venues which are controlled by those companies,” Snell says. “I think we’re a way off any company in Australia being able to offer this in anything other than isolated instances, though it’s certainly another access point to be mindful of in the future.”