Opera Jobs: The Surtitler

Here at ENO we believe opera exists for everyone, so don’t worry if you don’t know all the words. In our productions we project English surtitles (not to be confused with subtitles, although they are more or less the same thing) above the stage so that your eyes can pick up what your ears might have missed.

This vital job is in the talented hands of our ENO Surtitle Operators. Kate Telfer shares an account of what it’s like to do her job on a show day:

It’s Stage and Orchestra 1 – the first of typically three stage and orchestra rehearsals when the principal singers, chorus, orchestra, actors, dancers, puppeteers, and so on come together to bring an opera to the London Coliseum stage for the first time.

The canteen babbles, the coffee machine hums to the tune of shot after shot of steaming lacquery liquid and screeches steam into metal milk jugs only to be muted by foam and froth. 

‘Ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra, this is your 5 minute call please. Your 5 minute call, ladies and gentlemen of the orchestra’ croons the tannoy. 

The room swells suddenly with the rising of bodies and a scraping of chairs. I watch as a final few hurriedly approach the counter for caffeination before dashing off eyes-on-mug to the wings and orchestra pit.

I have time, as do some of the stage crew who still populate some of the sofas and tables. They are unmistakable, kitted out in all black with hip radios and headsets which occasionally mumble words decipherable only to them. 


The counter’s queue-free and I want tea. I get one in my reusable cup (no more disposables at ENO) and journey through the rabbit warren from underbelly to front of house.

I walk well-worn painted floors with overhead pipework and windowless white-washed walls, like a lower deck in the hull of a great ship. I pass the orchestra pit and bass cage (home to double basses and cellos and box upon box of orchestral music for that season’s shows), I go down two steps then up a few more to land outside the surtitle box door. Behind it, wine coloured velvet hangs between me and Bizet’s Carmen overture. I heave the curtain aside and slide (and I mean slide) into the remaining chair, the surtitle box squeeze. It is tiny. 

Riku sits at the computer, Carmen score before him. Here and there, thick graphite-y pencil lines topped by numbers in boxes slash vertically through notes and staves, grey lollipops signalling the start of each new surtitle.

When chunks of text are repeated or when the singing ceases, blank titles with no text are cued. These are recorded in the same way with large capital ‘B’s written to their right. On the computer monitor, chronological lines of libretto disappear below the horizon, numbered in accordance with the score. A printout of this is what I have on the desk in front of me; no music, just numbered lines of text across several pages. Red felt tip at the ready, I sit in the bluish light and peer through the viewing window into the auditorium.

House lights are down and the orchestra pit is aglow. Recognisable silhouettes materialise in the gloom, a producer here, a casting director there. The overture draws to a close and they warmly patter their applause. Then begins the familiar upward flurry of the curtain and Carmen’s opening bars. I look to the top of the stage to the surtitle screen as Riku taps on the keyboard. We’re off. 

The text goes by quickly and writing becomes scribbling. This is the first time the surtitles are put together with those performing the text, and the first rehearsal we surtitlers are called. My job is to look out for typos, the odd missed word change (the assistant conductor has been communicating these from the rehearsal room for several weeks) and to design the overall animation of the surtitles. Fades in and fades out can be set to anything from 1 – 10 seconds long, offstage singing is italicised, and what’s known as the ‘drop-down’ – when the lower line of text is cued in later than the upper – makes for satisfying punchlines and cliffhanger “reveals”.

Line breaks and sentences spanning more than a single title will often require attention too: the surtitle screen allows just two lines of text at a time and the font size must be large for readability. The head of music is my second pair of eyes in the auditorium, and it is he who valiantly leads the tussle against the dreaded… ellipsis. But the need is real, and deep down I think he loves them really. 

Time flies and the conductor’s baton rests as I sit back in my seat – I am suddenly aware of how engrossed I’ve been. The adrenaline slackens and I surface blinkingly from the box. Riku heads home and I turn my attention to the edits. It is a lengthy process, but I know that when I see it play out, that when the long inward fade and the unfurling of music expand and emerge as one, that in that moment I will have paid some small complement to the sublime.

By Kate Telfer