Surtitles: Read 'em and weep.

Or, as seems to be happening more frequently, read 'em and laugh.

In either case, surtitles -- the newest phenomenon in American opera -- are having a new kind of impact on audiences all over the United States. Whether it makes them want to laugh or cry, average ticket buyers are coming out of opera houses with a clearer understanding of what they have seen and heard.

The principle seems simple enough. On stage, the tenor sings "La donn' e mobile," and on a screen far above his head appears an English translation: "Women are fickle." The system went into experimental operation last year at the New York City Opera. This year, all the City Opera's foreign-language productions have titles, and other companies are following suit. The Washington Opera is using them, for the first time, in two productions this year: Puccini's "La Bohe me" and Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," both now running at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

In practice, the use of surtitles is turning out to be a complicated business. Everything in opera is complicated, including the audience's reaction to such innovations. The Great Debate

Interviews with audience members during several intermissions, here and in New York, show a sharp division of opinion, though a large majority (perhaps as much as 80 percent) are in favor of surtitles. Those against tend to be very much against. They also tend to be members of the operatic hard core, the kind of people who listen to a recording two or three times and study the libretto before going to an opera. Or the kind who have a few favorite operas that they know almost by heart -- people who may have seen 20 different productions of "Tosca" or "La Traviata" and still come back for more. The attitude reflected in their comments is not necessarily snobbishness, though there is certainly some of that.

Opponents of surtitles can be found in the standing room as well as the box seats. They can be found particularly among the fanatics, a subspecies slightly different from run-of-the-mill snobs. Some of these are people who come hours early and wait in long lines for standing-room tickets. Others enjoy buttons, T-shirts and bumper stickers with such slogans as "Lucia: Another Senseless Tragedy," "Tosca Went Overboard" and "Never Argue With a Soprano."

Essentially, the feeling is an analogue of some people's attitudes toward food stamps or subsidized housing: "I worked hard for my enjoyment; why should others get it free?"

Those who most heartily approve of surtitles are largely members of the new mass audience for opera -- people who have been attracted to this form of entertainment by seeing it on television or in the movies. In those media, subtitles are taken for granted. People got used to knowing, in considerable detail, what was happening in an operatic performance. And they have had an uneasy feeling that something was missing when they bought tickets and went to a live performance.

But the people who say they love surtitles are not all newcomers. At least one has been subscribing to the Washington Opera for 25 years. Another is a board member of the Washington Opera Guild and on a first-name basis with many opera singers. Their enjoyment of the innovation is largely personal, but it also has an element of missionary spirit in it. They want to enlarge the opera audience, and they see titles as a long step in that direction. people find titles distracting. With the screen far above the stage, it seems that people downstairs would have to work at being distracted. Titles may be more obtrusive, however, from balcony seats, where they are closer to normal eye level. Eventually, we may see a two-track system introduced -- some performances of a given production offered with titles and others without them. This is particularly likely in larger companies that offer many performances -- the Metropolitan Opera, for example, which has been looking askance at the question of titles but will probably give them a try sooner or later. A Question of Timing

Some of your feeling about titles may depend on where you are sitting or standing. In the Kennedy Center Opera House, they are hard to read from some of the most expensive seats, down front. They are impossible to read from some tanding-room areas.

One way to overcome this problem would be to switch from surtitles (shown on a screen above the stage) to true subtitles, shown just below the stage. The technical challenges posed by this innovation are formidable -- for example, the danger that some of the words might be flashed on the back of the conductor's head, which usually sticks out a bit from the orchestra pit. It could be done by building a special floor for operatic performances, raising the stage level perhaps three feet, and projecting the words from the back rather than the front.

But the projection has to be controlled by someone who is watching the performance closely -- also someone who knows the opera and its timing with fine precision. Nothing annoys the cognoscenti more than hearing the audience laugh at a punch line a second or two before it is actually sung. This can easily happen if people are reacting to the titles more than to the words they hear -- and if the timing is off.

The expense of building a true subtitle system is something no opera company wants to think about, but it may be necessary for auditoriums like the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, where nobody has yet figured out how to show titles. The Terrace is built like an enormous high-fidelity speaker -- the type that looks like a square-cornered horn. This form is widely used in Japan, which gave the Terrace Theater to the Kennedy Center, and it may have something to do with the hall's unusually clear acoustics. With its uninterrupted flow of walls from the stage into the auditorium, this structure gives opera a strong impact; it seems to draw the audience into the performance. But the Terrace Theater does not have a proscenium in the traditional style. And the proscenium is usually the place where titles are projected. Text and Syntax

As for the words themselves, the most important considerations are accuracy and completeness -- neither of which is totally attainable. A literal translation of almost any operatic text would be worse than useless. Consider, for example, the number of arias that begin with an Italian equivalent of "of": "Dalla sua pace," "Di quella pira," "D'Amor su l'ale rosee," "Dei miei bollenti spiriti." Nobody wants to know that Manrico is singing, literally, "Of that pyre, the horrendous fire . . ." Or that Leonora sings "Of love on the rosy wings."

It is already becoming apparent that each composer, even each libretto, presents a unique set of challenges to the surtitle translator. The two operas receiving the treatment this year in Washington offer a specially sharp contrast. "Bohe me" looks easier than "Figaro" to reduce to surtitles. The text is already pared down to essentials, the syntax is not as convoluted as in many earlier opera texts, and the music is generally rather slow moving, so there is usually time to get in most of the words.

There are exceptions, of course -- the Act 2 street scene, for example, opens with an outburst of chatter from the chorus, representing street vendors, strollers, customers and waiters at a sidewalk cafe'. This is entirely omitted in the titles; what they are saying doesn't matter, only the bright, excited flavor of their chatter. In a corner, the musician Schaunard is examining some instruments offered by a street vendor, and his lines are represented in the titles -- somewhat compressed: "This horn's out of tune! How much?" These seven words are reduced from 11 in the original: "Falso questo re! . . . Falso questo re! . . . Pipa e corno quant'e?" The title makes no attempt at literal translation; the audience doesn't really need to know that D is the out-of-tune note on the horn, or that Schaunard is bargaining for more than one instrument. What matters is that he is a musician and a poor one who has to haggle over the sale of an inferior instrument, even though he has just earned some money.

But a few minutes later, Musetta's waltz is translated almost completely and literally, simplifying the rather convoluted syntax in some places, but retaining the essentials. This number is a show-stopper and presumably the audience will want more details.

"The Marriage of Figaro" looks much more difficult. The plot is extremely fast moving, with constant changes of situation, people in disguises and a lot of recitative that packs a maximum number of words into a minimum of time. Act 3 opens with a recitative by the Count, represented in the titles by 66 words in seven sets of titles. The translator, Francis Rizzo, has been able to pare only 10 words from the original, which is already written with great economy. And the Italian words are sung so quickly that the audience will have to speed-read.

It is even more complicated a few minutes earlier: Act 2 ends with a long ensemble number in which sometimes as many as seven people are simultaneously singing up to three different sets of words, for example: "My lord, we call on you for justice!" "They're here to make trouble!" and "They're here to help me out!" The music manages to harmonize all this confusion and keep the plot moving. It is a lot harder for the titles to do so. The Surtitle Revolution

Many questions remain unanswered. How will titles affect ticket sales over a long period of time? Will they reduce the sale of librettos during intermission? Will the acting skills of singers be upgraded as they come to realize that the audience knows what they are supposed to be saying? But in their first year of widespread use, surtitles already look like a permanent addition to the operatic scene. The time may even come when audiences insist on having them for operas sung in English -- not a bad idea considering the diction problems of some singers.