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A Few Ways to Discourage Watching Opera on DVDs (1)

Jan/Feb, 2005

I have been fighting a battle for my eyesight and that of countless others against CD and DVD companies that have reached the acme of customer unfriendliness with their booklets. It started with the CD booklet and now is running riot through DVD booklets as well. What I am referring to is the use of printed notes that are difficult if not nearly impossible to read.

            Even back in the days of the LP, some producers thought that artwork was as important as the words of the program notes and libretto by printing them against light black and gray drawings in such a way that any letters falling against the black regions of the pictures were ipso facto illegible. Come the CDs, some companies decided to restore that idiotic tradition by giving us black print on textured black and gray backgrounds.

            Then came worse. A track listing for a certain DVD in my collection is in white print against a brown and tan drawing of what looks like foliage. If you hold it to the light, the reflection from the glossy surface makes it quite impossible to read. Without the direct light, it is only very difficult to read. But that is mere childsplay to yet another listing from the same company on which a miniscule black print is shown against a fairly dark blue background. Why?

            DVDs on yet another label include operas from La Scala, accompanied by sensible black on white booklets. Yet from the same label, I have a recent opera in which the notes are quite legible while the scene cast listings are in black print against a red background. Try to imagine!

            Well, I sent out several e-mails to these companies on those “info@” addresses and finally got an answer from an English firm that is particularly prone to this ocular abuse. A lovely person who claims responsibility for the layouts of the booklets began by assuring me that many people have complimented them. Then he says something I had best quote directly: “We have chosen to try and aim for a balance between supplying interesting, relevant information and giving our releases a distinctive creative character of their own.” He did, however, promise to give legibility more attention in the future, for which I thank him very much.

            Now it gets worse.

            In the old days, CDs and DVDs provided track listings and the timings for each track. Suddenly we began to get a list of the scenes but without any timing and without any track numbers in front of them. To make things more confusing, the first scene listed is not necessarily on Track 1. Then some companies decided to start a new tracking count at the start of each act. Since I often like to jump from scene to scene, this throws to the winds easy access to any scene that is not in the act being viewed. So we have wound up with “information” that cannot be easily read and useless when you manage to read it. Rock bottom? Not yet.

            A recent opera I received has no notes at all! On the back cover it reads, “This DVD contains an electronic booklet in pdf form which can be accessed from any computer equipped with DVD-ROM drive and Adobe Acrobat Reader 6.0.” Well, since I never watch operas on my tiny PC screen and have no use for that program, I found myself as a reviewer HAVING a need for that program, which eventually cost me over $200 for a new drive and installation. Then I was told that my machine would not accept the download. I am now out $200 and still cannot bring up the material on one of the two DVDs with this less-than-useful feature.

            But say I could bring up all the embedded information. If I am watching an opera and want to refer to the notes, all I have to do is remove the DVD from the player downstairs, run upstairs, put the DVD into my PC, rev up the program, read it, take it out, run downstairs again, reprogram the audio and subtitle settings on the DVD player, and watch until my next question appears. All this so the company can save on paper.

            I would like to know how many people who purchase opera DVDs (a) have PCs, (b) watch operas on those PCs, (c) have the required program, and (d) would use it under the circumstances I described even if they did? Oh, of course we can ring up the notes before viewing the video, print them out, and there we are. But why should we have to supply the paper and ink when the producers could have easily provided us with the same?

            Where are the days when user friendliness used to be the guiding spirit? Maybe if these giant corporations were given yet another tax break, they could afford the paper and ink. Do I sound bitter? You bet.

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