Monday, June 11, 2007

A Small Town Feel

Yesterday I noticed a small nod to information aesthetics in the Los Angeles Opera's production of the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda. Jutting out from behind the curtain was a wooden scale-model city, of the kind that still can be seen in European museums that haven't been remodeled by theme park designers. When the curtain went up, the words "Madrid" in wooden letters appeared behind this miniature skyline. In the final act, the city was covered with a blanket and dotted with tiny trees to indicate that the heroine was now out in the country, on a wealthy landowner's estate. The strange thing was that I couldn't see any recognizable Madrid landmarks in the stagecraft reproduction. Others in the audience, who wanted to see signs of their ticket prices spent on lavish scenery onstage, complained about the relatively minimalist staging and the fact that the one architectural construction they could see was too small for the characters to inhabit.

This got me thinking about how relatively visually impoverished supertitles are and how little they've changed since first introduced decades ago. The patron who had underwritten Luisa Fernanda admitted in the program that she couldn't enjoy grand opera until the supertitle revolution. Given the large number of Spanish-speakers in the Angeleno audience, it was no surprise that people often reacted to a line with laughter before it was translated overhead. But even song lyrics sung in English can be difficult to understand. There is now a whole genre of YouTube videos in the category of "Misheard Lyrics" that features send-ups of songs by Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Nirvana. As Ann Bartow Points out, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has inspired multiple versions.

Update: Given my riff about opera, I feel like I have to include this top-ranked viral video for the week, particularly since it represents the American Idol fan culture that Henry Jenkins has written about in his most recent book on media convergence.

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