We decided to give the kids a taste of opera, and took them to the Magic Flute at London's Opera Holland Park yesterday afternoon. Very successful: the production was well enjoyed by all. In contrast to some of the critics, we thought there was lots of humour and fun in the production and staging, and thoroughly enjoyed the music. The combination of a pantomime-like plot and some of Mozart's most sublime music makes Die Zauberflöte very appealing to kids, and a great time was had.

Conditions weren't at their most favourable for what's basically a large tent, with howling gales throughout and the occasional jumbo jet passing overhead (invariably timed for the middle of important arias). In spite of this, the singing was broadly good, with excellent performances from Penelope Randall-Davis, very assured in the vocal gymnastics of the Queen of the Night, and Jonathan Gunthorpe, who stood in for the indisposed Roland Wood as Papageno and displayed real stage presence in keeping the story moving along. Tamino and Pamina were sung attractively, and the show was stolen by Mark Le Brocq's Monostatos: his balletic skip as he left the stage under the influence of Papageno's magic bells caused great merriment, and his change in gait after having his feet whipped was brilliant.

All credit to director Simon Callow and his choreographer Quinny Sacks. The costumes, motion and acting gave huge enjoyment, thoroughly in the populist spirit that Mozart and Schikaneder conjured up in their day.

The main snag is this: the opera was sung in English, which means the producers appear to assume that we can understand the words and left the surtitle screens above the stage unused. For large tracts of the performance, this simply isn't the case. The singers' diction was so blurred that even when I was concentrating really, really hard on solo arias, I could rarely make out more than one word in two, and for anything with two or more singers, I couldn't understand a word. This isn't only a criticism of this particular performance: it's the fourth opera in English I've seen this year, and I've had the same problem every time. I'm familiar enough with the Magic Flute's plot, but it's been a couple of years since I last listened to the whole opera properly, and it's disappointing to have to rely utterly on careful reading of the synopsis in the (very good) programme notes to remind myself of what's supposed to be happening.

I realise that the greatest operas were written for the greatest singers of their day and that you can't expect always expect a traditional operatic singing style to be accompanied by perfect clarity of diction, particularly in the ensemble numbers which can get somewhat confused anyway. But the technological solution is available, and to leave the surtitle screens unused on the basis that we're all supposed to know the language seems to me to be wilfully ignoring the problem. Opera is, after all, a form of musical theatre, and it's crucially important to one's enjoyment to understand the words being sung. If I hadn't gone through the story with my two kids thoroughly in advance, their afternoon would have been completely spoilt, and that just isn't right.

I noticed that when Birtwistle's Minotaur was screened on TV a few weeks ago, the BBC added subtitles, which made the whole thing hugely easier to listen to and understand. Isn't it about time that people who put on live opera in English admitted the reality and gave us some surtitles?

5th July 2008