The Death of the Printed Libretto?

Category : Blog Archive Dec 7th, 2008

Is the printed libretto quickly becoming a thing of the past?

Mark Swed laments the loss of the printed libretto, but I wonder if it matters. It’s not something I’ve thought too much about before.

I find subtitles adequate in many cases, and perhaps they have rendered the printed book obsolete. Librettos used to be more common because there was no other way to widely distribute a translation. But even then, some people chose not to use them.

Sometimes I like to have a synopsis when there are a lot of characters, but I also like to experience a new opera as if it were a movie or a play and let the plot unfold as the performance takes place, rather than knowing ahead of time exactly how everything is going to turn out. I only analyze a movie script when I’m doing a detailed study of a film–it’s sort of the same with opera. Not even to broach the argument that the music should be the primary part of the operatic experience.

Swed’s criticism applies mainly to the fact that libretti are no longer distributed with recordings. But when you go to hear a live opera, I think it is still very common to receive a synopsis with your program, in addition to subtitles or surtitles.

I won’t go so far as to call libretti “chopped liver,” as Swed says enemies of the libretto might, but I wonder if there is still a great need to have them distributed widely. There are benefits to having a libretto and benefits to not. It’s an old argument and it depends on the opera. But in general, Swed’s reservations about new ways of experiencing opera strike me as slightly paranoid.