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Figaro Systems

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Figaro Systems, Inc. is an American company that provides seatback and wireless titling software and system installations to opera houses and other music performance venues worldwide. The company is based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was established in 1993 [1] by Patrick Markle, Geoff Webb, and Ron Erkman [2] and was the first company to provide assistive technology that enables individualized, simultaneous, multi-lingual dialogue and libretto-reading for audiences. [3]



Figaro Systems grew out of a conversation in 1992 among three opera colleagues: Patrick Markle, at that time Technical Director of the Santa Fe Opera, Geoffrey Webb, Design Engineer for the Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York, and Ronald Erkman, then a technician for the Met. At that time, opera houses had two options for the display of libretto and dialogue subtitles: projection onto a large screen above the stage or onto smaller screens throughout the theatre. The translation, moreover, was in a single language. [4]

The Americans with Disabilities Act had recently been enacted; Markle was trying to solve the problem of venues' lack of accessibility to patrons with disabilities, including the profoundly deaf. Markle, Webb, and Erkman devised the first prototype of a personal seatback titling device. John Crosby of the Santa Fe Opera saw its potential for opera patrons. [5] Markle, Webb, and Erkman were further reinforced by their understanding of technology’s role in remediating the physical barriers people encounter, worldwide, which frustrate or prevent their access to the visual performing arts. [6]

Markle, Webb, and Erkman applied for and were granted patents for their invention. [7][8]

Philanthropist and investor Alberto Vilar counted Figaro Systems among the companies in which he was a majority shareholder. [9][10] He donated the company's electronic libretto system to European venues including The Royal Opera House in London, The La Scala's Teatro degli Arcimboldi opera houses in Milan, Italy, The Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, and The Wiener Staatsoper in Wien, Austria.

Products and technology

The company’s products are known variously as seat back titles, surtitles,[11] electronic libretto systems, opera supertitles, projected titles, and libretto translations. Opera venues have utilized the system to display librettos in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, and Spanish, [12] although the software enables the reading of the libretto in any written language. [13] Translation is provided by one screen and delivery system per person. [14]

Typically, but not in all cases, the system is permanently installed along the backs of rows of seats. Each screen is positioned so that the text is clearly visible to each user. The displays were intitially available in vacuum fluorescent display, (VFD) and, in 2000, liquid crystal display, (LCD) was used. In 2004 the displays became available with organic light-emitting diode, (OLED) screens. Each type of display provides the same text information and program annotation on eight channels simultaneously, may be turned off by the user, and is user-operated with a single button. The company’s software is capable of supporting venues’ existing systems as well as its own "Simultext" system. The software enables cueing of each line as it is sung, and it appears instantly on the screen. [15] The company builds fully modular systems including its wireless handheld screens [16] for users who cannot use seatback systems, for example people in wheelchairs, who may be viewing the opera in areas lacking seatback viewing, or people with compromised eyesight.


In the US, the company’s systems are in use in The Ellie Caulkins Opera House[17] in Denver, Colorado, The Santa Fe Opera in Santa Fe, [18] The Brooklyn Academy of Music, [19] The Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York, the Met (there called "MetTitles") [20], The Roy E. Disney Theatre in Albuquerque's National Hispanic Cultural Center, McCaw Hall in Seattle Washington, The Opera Theatre of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri, The Des Moines Metro Opera in Des Moines, Iowa and The Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Kansas City, Missouri. [5]

In the UK and Europe, the systems have been installed in venues including The Royal Opera House in London, The Teatro alla Scala and La Scala's Teatro degli Arcimboldi opera houses in Milan, Italy, The Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Spain, and The Wiener Staatsoper in Wien, Austria. [21]


In 2001, the company won the Los Alamos, New Mexico|Los Alamos Laboratories’ Technology Commercialization Award for its Simultext system. [22] In 2008, the company’s software was one of four finalists for the Excellence Award for Commercial Software awarded by the New Mexico Information Technology and Software Association.


  1. Andrew Webb, “Opera Subtitle Firm Eyes New Game,” New Mexico Business Weekly, Nov. 21, 2003 [1]
  2. Figaro Systems Official Website
  3. David Belcher, “Nothing Lost in Translation: Video system allows patrons to read words on chair backs,” Albuquerque Journal, June 4, 2006. [2]
  4. Dennis Domrzalski, "Figaro: Eyes translate when ears don't get it," New Mexico Business Weekly, Apr. 8, 2005 [3]
  5. 5.0 5.1 Figaro Systems Official Website. About
  6. “User-friendly art: In-seat text displays that subtitle and translate.” Auditoria, May 2007 [4]
  7. United States Patent 5,739,869, "Electronic libretto display apparatus and method," issued April 14, 1998. United States Patent and Trademark Office Patent Full-Text and Image Database [5]
  8. Los Alamos Laboratory, Daily News Bulletin, May 7, 2001
  9. Robert Hilferty, "A Knight at the Opera," New York Magazine, Jan. 14, 2002 [6]
  10. "Alberto Vilar: The Privileges of Wealth," The Free Encyclopedia
  11. Eric Skelly, "Surtitles at the Opera," Public Radio News and Information in Houston, Texas, KUHF 88.7 FM Houston Public Radio [7]
  12. "Sandia helps 278 state businesses in 2004 through New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program," Sandia National Laboratories, Sandia Corporation, March 22, 2005 [8]
  13. “Giving the Opera a New Voice,” Entertainment Engineering," Volume 4, Issue 2, p. 6 [9]
  14. Figaro Systems Official Website
  15. “Giving the Opera a New Voice,” Entertainment Engineering," Volume 4, Issue 2, p. 6 [10]
  16. United States Patent 6,760,010. "Wireless electronic libretto display apparatus and method," issued July 6, 2004: United States Patent and Trademark Office Patent Full-Text and Image Database [11]
  17. Marc Shulgold, "Opera dialogue shows on seat in front of you," Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado), Sep. 3, 2005 [12]
  18. Santa Fe Opera, Santa Fe, NM. Cached webpage
  19. “An Operatic Performance,” Appliance Magazine, June 2007
  20. Figaro Systems Official Website. Installations
  21. “Giving the Opera a New Voice,” Entertainment Engineering., Volume 4, Issue 2, p. 6 [13]
  22. Todd Hanson, "Los Alamos announces technology commercialization awards," Los Alamos National Laboratory News, Los Alamos National Security, LLC, US Department of Energy's NNSA, May 7, 2001 [14]

External links

  • “The Expectation of Experience,” The International Society for the Performing Arts Foundation, (Rye, New York), 60th Annual Conference, Jan. 8 - 10, 2008. Speaker Bio of Patrick Markle [15]