Emmy Ulmer, Seattle Opera’s titlist, reveals that there is much more to a supertitle—those helpful translated words that appear above the stage in every performance—than meets the eye. Emmy’s job is as much about presenting those words as it is about anticipating the rhythm and comic timing of their delivery, all while keeping out of the music’s way.
What does the titlist do?
I operate the titles that appear above the stage for all of Seattle Opera’s shows. I sit in the English Captions Booth at the back of the house, with a cued piano vocal score, so that I know who is singing what and when, and I have a computer program where I push “go” for each cue. (On average, there are 750 cues a night.) I also have a fader that projects the light onto the screen. I can make the words on the screen appear really quickly, or I can move the fader really slowly.
Why would you want the words to appear slowly?
In Lucia, for instance, in the end when we have the tenor’s beautiful aria and he’s dying, I made the words go slowly so that you wouldn’t bring your attention to the screen in a quick way, so that your attention moved with the singer.
You’re really influencing how we’re experiencing the opera. If the words flashed up there, we might be looking at them without
paying enough attention to the music.
Exactly. It can be distracting.
You must really have to know the operas. How do you prepare?
I study the operas. I get a copy of the score beforehand, even if it’s not the cued one, and I get recordings of the music. When we were doing Ariadne auf Naxos last spring with the Young Artists, I walked my daughter around Green Lake—she was in the stroller—and I had my old-fashioned CD-man and I listened to certain sections again and again. I understand German, but it was a very funny opera in places, so there were timing issues. It was a challenging opera.
Is it even more challenging if it’s in a language you aren’t familiar with?
Bluebeard’s Castle was really challenging because I don’t know Hungarian. But listening to the music and learning what’s happening in the story helped me to know it better before I got to rehearsals.
Can the timing get “off”?
Yes. And in some of the harder operas it isn’t necessarily because of the language. A lot of comedies are hard because the timing is so crucial. The punch line could be in the title, so I have to be on my toes, watching and listening intently, so I can project that title at just the right time. Mozart operas and Rossini operas, such as The Barber of Seville, are hard because they have a lot of recitative. Because recitatives are not performed strictly in tempo, my timing is really dependent on the singer.
Have things ever gone wrong?
Sometimes a singer, especially in a recitative, might forget where they are and skip ahead, and I have to accommodate them. But that’s live theater.
When did you get interested in opera?
My mother gave me tickets to go with her to Seattle Opera as a graduation present from high school. I studied percussion and cello in high school, and I majored in percussion at the University of Washington, so I had played overtures to operas in youth symphonies, but I didn’t know anything about opera. The first opera I went to was Lohengrin in 1994. We went that whole season and then in 1995 it was the Ring. I had a crash course in Wagner that summer. We had a lot of learning sessions at Pagliacci Pizza up the street from the opera house, and this was how I met Jonathan Dean [who was operating the titles at the time]. Jon must have seen that I was becoming a big opera geek. At some point he must have thought I’d be good with timing and rhythm because I am a percussionist. My first title job was the 2004 Lohengrin, so I came full circle with my first opera.
Are you still actively playing?
I do play a little bit when there is no opera, for example, during the holiday season when there is a lot of music all over town. I also teach. I’m a coach with the Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras, and I sometimes go into the schools to teach. I’m also a mom. I’ve worked at Starbucks for almost 10 years. I’ve run into quite a few customers at the opera house, and I say, “Hey remember me? I make your coffee.” And they say, “Oh, yeah, what are you doing here? Are you enjoying the show?” And I tell them, “Actually, I run the supertitles. I’m the one who makes it so that you understand what’s going on.”
Photo by Bill Mohn
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for The Barber of Seville in January 2011.