She was talking about a piece she’d written in her capacity as classical music critic for the Washington Post, about a film in which an opera singer was cast in a starring acting role (with no singing involved). What emerged, as she talked to this singer (and to other opera singers who’ve found themselves acting outside of opera) is that opera singers aren’t taught to act. Above all, they don’t learn two very basic things — first, how to react, as an actor, to the people you’re on stage with, and, second, not to move too much. (This comes, I should stress, not from Anne, but from the singers, who — taken out of opera — are amazed to find how much they don’t know about how to handle themselves on stage.)
I’ve noticed the same problems in most operatic acting. There’s no real emotional exchange between two singers doing a scene together, no genuine exchange of energy, as you’d see in a film or a play. And singers move around too much, do too much with their arms, make faces, mug to the audience.
And I’m mentioning this as a footnote to my last post, or maybe to the parenthetical digression at the start of it, where I complained about Renee Fleming mugging and gesticulating more than she should. This is a problem, if we want to bring new people into the opera audience. What they see on stage just won’t be convincing. Opera singers, in fact (or at least in my view), don’t even know how to stand still and sing. They don’t know how to present themselves as vocal performers, something just about any pop, rock, Broadway, or cabaret singer knows.
For a notable example, watch the Stephen Sondheim birthday tribute that ran on PBS, and see how ineffective — how just plain weak — opera baritone Nathan Gunn is, compared to the stellar Broadway types he shares the show with. This is a big subject, and it points to yet another gap between classical music and the rest of our culture.