The strip of paper looks like a message from a fortune cookie. It reads like one, too: "Habit is a gift sent by Heaven to take the place of Happiness."
But this isn't a Chinese restaurant; it's the spotlight booth high atop the Kennedy Center's Opera House. The piece of paper is stuck to a page of the score for Tchaikovsky's opera "Eugene Onegin." And there are 325 others, just like it, meticulously anchored with triangles of fluorescent green tape, throughout the score. For every surtitle that flashes from the rear of the Opera House onto the black rectangular screen suspended above the stage, there is a corresponding piece of paper.
The booth houses three spotlights, and with the surtitle operation added, the quarters are cramped. One projector is stacked on top of another; music pours from two ceiling speakers and a third box on the floor; a red table is covered with a score, a lamp and a cube-shaped computer called a "dissolve unit." Carol Palca, who runs the surtitles -- and, in the case of "Eugene Onegin," translated them from the Russian text -- sings along as she works. "If I start getting really involved in it, singing along," she confesses, "I forget to push the bottons of the dissolve unit . . . I have to remember why I am here."
With the 20-button dissolve unit, Palca can synchronize how fast the surtitles emerge or fade on the screen with the needs of the music. "I'll try to bring the slide up with the music . . . Certainly, if the music is very legato and quiet, you don't want a sharp, jarring visual image at the same time. That would have to detract from the music."
Precision is particularly important for comic scenes. "Laughs have to be timed right," Palca explains. The words must appear so opera-goers will read them and laugh at the same time they would if they'd heard the words in English. Anything less, she says, "would be disturbing for the performers. You don't want someone laughing before you get to the punch line of your joke. And you don't want to deliver the punch line, have silence, three beats and then laughter.
"I sort of drifted into what I do," says Palca, whose responsibilities with the Washington Opera range from hiring piano tuners to accompanying rehearsing singers. Palca is also a linguist, fluent in French and Russian, proficient in German and Italian and familiar with Hebrew and Greek.
Philip Yunger, the stage electrician who assists Palca, characterizes her personality as "Type A." On opening nights, he says, "she's like a cat clinging to the ceiling."
"I like to think of it as artistic excellence," she responds, smiling.
"We are constantly editing and reevaluating," Palca says. "It is a kind of art." For example, audiences at the first few performances of "Onegin" read a surtitle that audiences thereafter did not: Tatiana exclaiming, "An icy hand grips my heart and presses it mercilessly!" Palca removed the slide after deciding that the line disturbed the effect of the rest of the scene's surtitles, which focused on the words of another character, Lensky.
Surtitles are ultimately the responsibility of Francis Rizzo, the Washington Opera's artistic director. "He has such high standards . . . and is not going to take anything. If it isn't right, he will wrestle with it and wrestle and wrestle, until he gets it," says Palca. Rizzo translated the Italian text for the more than 700 "Don Giovanni" surtitles; he and Palca collaborated on "Un Ballo in Maschera"; and Palca translated "Onegin."
Tchaikovsky's libretto had to simplify Pushkin's novel "Eugeni Onegin" to make it work operatically. The Washington Opera's surtitles had to simplify Tchaikovsky's libretto for the people reading along. "If we leave out a few metaphors, I don't think anyone is going to be hurting . . . we try to give a sense of what is going on -- to advance the plot. We try not to omit any important plot lines . . . If you do everything, it is excessive. You are sitting there reading the screen -- why don't you stay at home and listen to a recording?"
From avoiding split infinitives to keeping the surtitles short ("to maximize the facility of reading" for the audience) Palca's standards are meticulous. She tries to translate not only meaning but also style -- catching, for example, the class differences in characters' speech. "In 'Onegin,' Filipevna, the nurse, is a peasant working for this aristocratic family. She can't talk the same way they do . When she talks to her charges, the teen-age daughters, obviously she has to say it in a different tone of voice, different words. I think an audience gets a flavor for that," says Palca.
How do you translate a 19th-century sentiment for a 20th-century audience? That's the kind of detail that challenged Palca and Rizzo. "We rewrote the last slide of 'Onegin' three times," says Palca. "Onegin is left in a miserable weeping heap on the stage, having been rejected by Tatiana at the end. And he says, 'Disgrace, humiliation, misery . . .' Then he says, 'Oh, bitter fate.'
"At first, I had 'Oh, bitter Fate.' I had capitalized the 'F' in fate and it was just too melodramatic . . . Then I changed it. I made it a lowercase 'f' and changed it to 'Oh, cruel fate.' And that was also not so good. So, opening night, I chickened out. I had 'Oh, cruel fate' ready, and at the last minute I couldn't put it up. I just left nothing there. I figured, let the audience figure it out. What's the tragedy? They miss a slide?
"I've just rewritten it, and I am sort of pleased. I think it captures the essence. I said 'No hope remains.' By the third performance, I think I put that one in. That's a hell of a thing to leave the audience with -- 'No hope remains.' We've been planning to put up another slide afterwards: 'Have a nice day.' "
She laughs at the idea, and repeats the sequence.
" 'No hope remains.' "
" 'Have a nice day.' "