Opera Surtitling, Subtitling and Translation

I was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, in 1950, and educated at Hitchin Boys’ Grammar School, where my greatest inspiration came from our wonderful music master, Peter Cooper, and the woodwind teacher John Myatt (click on ‘Bassoon’ for more about John). The family then moved to Cambridge, and I spent a year at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology (since renamed Anglia Polytechnic University), on a rather vague but fun ‘post-A-level’ course with another inspirational teacher, a young harpsichordist named Christopher Hogwood – now a renowned conductor and still a friend.

From the ‘Tech’ I got a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge, to read Music (following in my brother Tony’s footsteps), graduating in 1972 with a double First (BA Hons.). Feeling that I wanted more academic study, but not too much, I went to Birmingham University for a year – a very jolly experience – and gained an MA for a thesis on the late works of Richard Strauss. I could have stayed on and done a PhD, but that was enough for me.

Having already done some freelance TV work for my half-brother Humphrey Burton (nepotism!), I picked up enough work to keep me going for a year or two, as researcher, score-reader, fixer of artists, arranger and music copyist, mostly for ITV companies including London Weekend, Yorkshire TV, and Southern Television in Southampton. I had some memorable experiences working on filmed concerts in Ely Cathedral and Vienna conducted by Leonard Bernstein (Mahler, Beethoven and Brahms symphonies) for the German film company Unitel. ‘Lenny’ was an amazing and infuriating man – another great inspiration: his influence lives on (look at the Leonard Bernstein website).

I have been lucky, and privileged, to work with so many inspirational figures: another was Dave Heather at Southern Television, one of the great TV directors for classical music and opera, now sadly undervalued. Dave employed me on his ‘Music in Camera’ series for several years, and also provided a link to my next big break, a ‘summer job’ in 1975 at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Sussex. As Pit Manager and Assistant Librarian, I was responsible for setting out chairs and music stands, moving instruments, marking up orchestral parts to the conductors’ requirements and putting them on the stands, and handing out scores to singers, plus all sorts of odd jobs that came along, including copying music and text, tuning harpsichords, and booking piano tuners. As I took on more responsibility, I was eventually promoted to Senior Librarian; but as I was chiefly employed during the summer Festival season, I was still able to freelance on TV programmes in the winter, and wear two hats at once when Southern TV did their annual relay of one or two Glyndebourne operas each season. These were golden years, both for Glyndebourne and for me, with a wonderful roll-call of great singers, conductors and directors in classic productions, all in glorious surroundings.

Despite feeling very much at home in East Sussex, and being given the prestigious Jani Strasser Award (for Glyndebourne music staff), after ten years I felt that I had outgrown my ‘summer job’; in 1984 I moved on, to become Senior Music Librarian at English National Opera – a similar post but in a much bigger organisation, with the added burden of hand-copying English translations into scores and getting them printed, with several hundred ‘customers’ impatiently waiting for their scores! I also had responsibility for a big budget, covering music hire and royalties, all of which had to be negotiated with publishers and copyright holders.

For several years in the 1980s and 90s, I taught two evenings a week at Goldsmiths’ College, University of London, specialising in 20th-century music history. I also ran weekend courses on ‘Score-reading for TV Production Staff’ for HTV, Yorkshire Television and TVS. (How on earth did I have the time?)

I stuck at ENO for 16 years, working incredibly hard and generally having a lot of fun (and helped by a succession of wonderful assistants and understanding music staff); but the company had its ups and downs, and eventually I felt that I had outgrown this job too. In search of something quieter but more focused, once again I was rescued by a timely vacancy, this time in the Surtitling Department at The Royal Opera House – where, since the notorious rebuilding of the Opera House in the late 1990s, it was decided that the Surtitle Department needed to be increased from one person (Judi Palmer, now my boss) to two.

So since August 2000 I have been a full-time Surtitler, building on freelance experience which goes back to the days of Southern TV, when I helped to cue subtitles on their opera broadcasts. I continue to pursue other freelance activities, as you will see elsewhere on this site.

Having lived in Sussex in my Glyndebourne days, buying my first house in Eastbourne in 1981, I found a flat in Blackheath when I came to London to work at ENO in 1984. After seven years in the flat, I moved a couple of streets away to my present house, a small rectangular box of great architectural interest (a Span house, built in 1959) on a tiny estate of 23 houses round a very pleasant communal green. It is ten minutes’ walk to the station and couldn’t be handier, although I am rapidly running out of space for my books, CDs and pictures!

All content © 2004 - Jonathan Burton :: Design by Ed Barrett