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At last! Radio 3 synchronised opera surtitles ...

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 23:05 UK Time, Friday, 16 October 2009

don_carlos_surtitles2.JPGIn the ten years - nearly - that I've worked for Radio 3 Interactive, we've been pursuing one particular grail object: synchronised surtitles for opera broadcasts. Easy enough to say: if I had a fiver for every time someone has said, 'Can't you just take a feed from the subtitle generator in the opera house and add it to the broadcast stream?' I wouldn't need to work for the BBC! Sadly, it ain't that simple ...

Well, about four years ago we got one hand on the grail when we provided synchronised surtitles on DAB LiveText for Wagner's Ring operas - this seemingly simple proposition involved about four days' prep: timing every cue in the scores (DAB labels take an immutable 45 secs to scroll - much slower than the time it takes to read a surtitle) and adapting/pruning the texts accordingly. On the night of the broadcasts, a score-reader and LiveText operator joined the studio production team: at the end of the experiment, we concluded that no-one could watch a whole opera of scrolling titles without going mad or turning into a nodding dog - there hasn't been much enthusiasm for developing that idea any further until DAB radios display entire labels simultaneously.

Now we have two hands on the grail - for the broadcast of the Royal Opera production of Verdi's Don Carlo on Saturday night, we're rolling out (fanfare of trumpets ...) the Royal Opera surtitles providing the English translation, with added stage directions, fed to the Radio 3 website, and synchronised with the audio stream.

As well as the software developers who created the technical system, an editorial team of two have been working on this for the last couple of weeks, led by my colleague, senior producer Roger Philbrick. Roger (pictured above) has provided me with some notes on what was involved, and this is the abridged version:

  • Get edited audio from Radio 3
  • Load audio into video editor, add the Royal Opera House proscenium graphic 
  • Create .mov files for each of the sections (creating movies with soundtrack but a static picture)
  • Convert the .movs into .flv files for use by the BBC's EMP (embedded media player) system
  • Build a host page on the Radio 3 website
  • Get the surtitles from the ROH as a Word doc, plus the full annotated score
  • Paste the surtitles into a spreadsheet
  • Listen to the R3 recording, follow the score and add 'in' and 'out' timings to the spreadsheet for each surtitle
  • In a mad moment, decide to add scene-setting info to fill the longer gaps between surtitles
  • Generate xml files with all the surtitle and timing info, upload these to the servers
    Check the results and revise timings & text as necessary
  • Fix various problems with an experimental system and keep all fingers crossed for Saturday night ...

There are 700 surtitles in Don Carlo - well done, Roger!

I'm reminded of the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Julian Glover's baddie character, invited to choose from an array of grails, goes for a jewel-encrusted one and ages to death in an instant; Indy picks the simplest, wooden grail chalice. Bingo! 'You chose wisely,' says the Grail Knight. In pursuing our grail, let's hope we have!
You can access the surtitles (live from 6pm on Saturday) by visiting bbc.co.uk/radio3/opera



  • Comment number 1.

    This system means you have to download the whole opera in not-very-hi-fi to get the surtitles and pics. For opera, synchronisation is not critical - just updating a page with pictures and text every few seconds would be fine. Then I could listen in high fidelity to the broadcast, while having a guide to what's going on on my laptop.
    Such a system would be great for other programs - science programs could put up a diagram or photo at the right moment (roughly) to provide that bit extra. Ramblings on R4 would be good too.
    TV has the opposite problem - they have to come up with pictures all the time, or shake the camera around if nothing is happening. Unwatchable!

  • Comment number 2.

    Sorry, good try, but they don't synchronise with the broadcast unless you switch your radio on at the exact moment the programme starts - I prefer not to listen on the tinny speaker in my laptop.

  • Comment number 3.

    I couldn't sychronise the subtitles with the sound coming from my DAB radio.
    My computer only gives a tinny sound alas, so didn't want to listen to it that way.
    I noticed that there is a 'Listen Live' place on the site
    which is nearly in sync with the broadcast, but that one didn't seem to have subtitles.

    Is the subtitles service only offered 'wild' viz as a thing you play at some other time ?
    That's lovely of course, but it would be nice to be able to see the subtitles at the same time as hearing decent sound live on the radio.

    At one time one could see them on the display of a DAB radio
    (though that's not ideal of course as it's a bit too small)

    I quite liked the subtitles appearing between those curtains
    though I guess it might be a bit visually under-powered throughout a whole evening
    Maybe some production stills ?

  • Comment number 4.

    I quite like it. I have my laptop running through speakers and the titles off to one side, so I can check the lines when I need a reminder.

  • Comment number 5.

    Dear All

    Many thanks for your comments - please keep them coming as we're keen to receive feedback which will enable us to improve the service!

    Best wishes


  • Comment number 6.

    As the opera coincides with dinner I am in the kitchen when my partner is in the living room
    I put on the analogue radio and hi fi on in each room so the sound was syncronised and put the subtitles on the TV with no sound [The TV sound is pretty ropey for opera anyway ]
    The fact that the introduction was given as 15mins exactly gave a head start with sychronisation and using the pause button on the screen enabled better syncronisation ( with practice) However each section normally started with an orchestral intro and the assumption that the scene-setting text started exactly with the music was false, so it was all a bit fiddly for a few minutes A better visual countdown of the music starting would help. Overall definitely worth doing even if you know the plot well Even better would be to transmit the Metropolitan Operas HD feed as they have backed out from UK nationally

  • Comment number 7.

    Dear Graeme
    This is a great facility even if it's going to take practice to use it. I got desynchronised (from the DAB broadcast) after a while and couldn't work out how to re-synchronise but it was good while it lasted.
    I was interested to see the comments from bflatfandd or 36bower.
    Keep up the good work!

  • Comment number 8.

    I listened to the broadcast on my PC as a digital download through my newly acquired headphones. The surtitles were brilliant and gave a complete understanding of the opera and made a vast improvement to the listening experience. I do have one further suggestion. Why not place a fixed TV camera about centre stalls showing the whole stage. I know we are talking radio and not TV, but radio on the internet is a new hybrid field. It would revolutionise the transmission for relatively little cost.

  • Comment number 9.

    Hello Graeme and Roger! This is kleines c. Congratulations on the technical achievement of getting the full surtitles online. I am surprised that it took you ten years to do it, as it is regarded as relatively normal on television! I listened to 'Don Carlo' on the car radio for part of the evening, as I was driving, but when I got home, I caught up on your link above, and checked out the surtitles, and it seemed to be correctly timed. It was a very enjoyable broadcast, although, to be honest, I could not be bothered to read a translation of the text all the way through.

    Of course, some people like to follow every word, but I find that even when I am in the Royal Opera House, I prefer to follow the action on stage, and only look up at the surtitles when I am confused about what is going on.

    I guess that the question is whether it is worth bothering with surtitles for all Operas on 3, and is this the holy grail of Radio 3 Interactive? I suspect not, Graeme. The grail (or graal) has always been a bit enigmatic, and I doubt that anyone is sure what sort of interactivity digital listeners really want in the future. I can personally do without surtitles, I prefer to see pictures of the production, and I thought that last year's experiment with ENO's 'Carmen' was more exciting, and it was interesting to try and work out what the controversy about the production was actually about.

    The holy grail for Opera on 3, it seems to me, might be to help radio listeners see how the production works visually online. Help us to judge the success of a particular staging for ourselves?

  • Comment number 10.

    Hello again everyone and most recently to kleines c.

    Thank you all for your feedback - it is very useful to know how and in what circumstances you like to experience opera on Radio 3. And kleines, your remarks about the visual side are very pertinent as we were talking about just this at our catch-up meeting this morning.

    At all times our focus is on what listeners would like (or come to like), rather than what we can achieve technically - so I think what will happen is that we'll continue to experiment with ideas and techniques, receive feedback, and act on it!

    Best wishes


  • Comment number 11.

    We were all in quite a rush to get the service working that the one thing we didn't do well enough was explain how it works. The service wasn't intended to be used to listen along to FM or DAB. The audio and the surtitles are packaged together online only. As some of you have mentioned it is very difficult to make it work along side the live radio broadcast. Sorry that we didn't make this clear enough.

    However, the service is still up there until the end of this week. We'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on whether you'd like this service again in the future. Some of my colleagues outside of our interactive team share your enthusiasm, some feel that it's a big ask to expect people to sit down by a computer or laptop and listen to the entire opera.

    I must confess, the way I used it was very similar to bflatfandd above. I didn't stare at the computer for the entire evening, I was ironing for a start, I used the surtitles to follow the story when I felt the need to know what was going on.

    Roland (Interactive Editor, Radio 3)

  • Comment number 12.

    The surtitles are an excellent idea. It would be nice if the window could popout in the same manner as iplayer - fullscreen is not convenient if using the computer for more than one task.

    All you need to do now is up the internet broadcast sound quality so that it's listenable through a hifi :-)

  • Comment number 13.

    Graeme and Roland,
    This is a great advance and works very well, but can we please put the focus back on the REAL Holy Grail of opera on radio - LIVE broadcasts? Broadcasters in Munich, Paris and New York - to give 3 examples I listen to - recognise the difference between a real-time live broadcast as opposed to a pre-recorded, neatly packaged programme. Why are the BBC and the Royal Opera incapable of understanding this difference? Sharing a live broadcast with hundreds of thousands of listeners as well as the audience in the opera house is an exciting experience which a later broadcast can never match.
    Given the public funding of the Royal Opera, it is simply a scandal that each production is not broadcast live on radio with 3 or 4 being shown live on television each season. The so-called "contractual" and "rights" issues could be sorted out in one fell swoop by including in the contracts of every performer (including the opera house staff) a provision that what they are being paid for includes radio and television broadcasts.

  • Comment number 14.

    I don't think I have ever listened to opera on radio 3 before, but was very excited yesterday when I realised that I could listen-again to Don Carlos and follow the lyrics with surtitles.

    I woke up this morning and immediately clicked to the new opera on 3, Carmen, and found that the surtitles were no longer available, which was so disappointing and put me off listening.

    Yesterday I listened on my laptop, through speakers. I didn't read all the surtitles, I looked from time to time when I was particularly interested, and in conjunction with the commentary on the plot, it made listening very enjoyable.

    I was very keen on the surtitles (having been very resistant to the idea of Covent Garden introducing them all those years ago, I now love them there as well) and hope they're introduced permanently.

  • Comment number 15.

    As I wrote previously (comment 8) surtitles transformed the listening experience giving me a comprehension of the performance that would have been impossible without them. So listening to Carmen yesterday via iplayer was naturally a disappointment.
    It was compounded by the fact that the transmisson of Don Carlos through the iplayer link was at 192 kbps while Carmen was at the much lower rate of 142 kbps.
    For complete success please add surtitles and transmit at the higher rate.

  • Comment number 16.

    It seems that it has gone down well with most of you. It's great to know that it made the opera more enjoyable and that you didn't feel it was too much of an ask to consume it via your computer rather than the radio.

    I will share all of your comments with my team and with BBC Radio 3 Production.

  • Comment number 17.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Don Carlo on Saturday. I was able to listen to the whole opera from my PC despite being too late to catch the radio version, and the surtitles were invaluable (along with the synopsis) in helping me understand what was going on.


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