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 asides 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.
"My rates are extremely flexible"
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.
"I try to make the slide transitions happen at
logical places in the phrase structure"
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.
"When I run titles I get to feel responsible
for the audience reaction"
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.
"I make sure the companies know that I am not
a hardware person, or a software person"
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 system 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.
"Having another job is not something to fall back on, it's something to do in the field before you succeed."
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 insulary 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.