Not acting

“Or [as my wife Anne Midgette wrote in her blog] yet another episode in my ongoing campaign to raise awareness of the lamentable fact t’hat opera is generally held to a lower dramatic standard than other forms of acting.” 

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. 

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  1. Bill Brice says

    I agree that it’s the acting in opera, perhaps more than any other element, that is off-putting to many potential audiences. I would go further and add that the overall stage deportment of many professional musicians — soloists, orchestra players, and chamber musicians — is almost as much a problem. It’s more noticable with instrumentalists than singers, who are at least taught to make eye contact with their listeners. How did we get to where it’s considered “professional” stage demeanor to appear glum and detached?

  2. Robert Berger says

    I couldn’t disagree more. In fact,many opera singers today are superb actors, as good as any in film or the stage.

    I’ve had the opportunity to observe the high standards of operatic acting on many occaisions on PBS telecasts and DVD over the years. They do in fact,interact with the other singers on stage.

    The Met’s Boris Godunov I saw a couple of weeks ago

    was not only musicaly but dramatically outstanding. They were real people on stage,not just singers who “parked and barked”. And Renee Fleming can most certainly act very well.

  3. Bill Brice says

    Robert, I do most enthusiastically agree with you on that great Met staging of Boris. The chorus, especially, interacted as real, fully individual persons. I loved it!

  4. Caterina says

    Watch (and listen to) Thomas Allen. He is a real actor, and he has seamlessly incorporated a highly natural-looking theatrical style with musicianship.

    There aren’t a lot more like that around, though.

  5. says

    I must also take exception to a few of the points made in this article. Having worked as a stage director in both theatre and opera, I can speak in very practical terms to the differences in process and result. In theatre, actors show up with script in hand, and everything must be done through a long arduous process. In opera, by contrast, singer/actors show up with their parts memorized and are required to take huge emotional risks almost immediately. In all of my productions, the opera singers are expected to make broad and convincing physical choices that often far exceed those I encounter in straight theatre. My recent production of Barber of Seville at Knoxville Opera featured a cast stunningly gifted singer / actors that could rival (and best) any troupe on earth.

    Furthermore, I expect the singers to enact these tasks on the first or second attempt – not after weeks of “process” like an actor. Again, having worked extensively in both genres, I’ll take the average opera actor over the average straight actor any day.

    While it is true that many of opera’s graduate programs are a bit slow in recognizing the need to address the acting end of things with a bit more seriousness, one must also consider all of the requirements that the average opera singer must take: subjects such as music theory, music history, diction, French, Italian, German languages, movement, dance, stage combat, etc. While it is true that one must forgive the occasional opera singer for mediocre acting, if he or she possesses a truly astounding and remarkable voice, one must remember the enormous physical strain involved in hours of extended vocal production that is not amplified by microphones.

    If it appears, then, that I seem to be making an apology for singers who have outstanding voices but whose acting may not be up to par, I would simply suggest that many actors I encounter working in New York or regionally give consistently uninspired performances. However, when an actor is mediocre, he has nothing else to offer. When an opera singer can’t act, one still has the power of the voice. Anyone can claim to be an actor – it requires no special training or skill. In fact, untrained actors work all the time. I don’t know of a single untrained opera singer.

    Your wife has reviewed several of my operas, and her appreciation of the fine acting in each was evident in her reviews. And believe me when I say that I am always appreciative when a critic notices the high level of acting I attempt to evoke in each of my productions. I would put either of the shows she has reviewed up against any Broadway favorite or classic. (Not that art should be a competition). I begin each rehearsal process by telling my cast what I expect “Our only job is to give the audience something they will remember for the rest of their lives. I want this to be the best show anyone has ever seen in any genre. That is our goal. Anything short of that goal is a waste of time.”

    Improving the level of acting in opera is my life’s goal and my career. I am currently directing Carmen at Opera Africa and was able to stage almost two entire acts (with remarkable detail) in a single day of rehearsal. I have never known a theatre director to be able to stage two acts of Shakespeare in a day. I respectfully submit that the ability to make this kind of progress is a direct result of the professional competence of the opera singers with whom I am honored to be working.

  6. John Federico says

    I think your comments about training get to the heart of the matter. The oral/aural tradition of opera is mostly NOT about acting…it’s about interpreting the score vocally. Given that most opera fans are deeply conservative and prize the performances that are preserved on vinyl/CDs/etc. over most contemporary performances and stagings, it’s a wonder that anyone ever gets it into their head that they should “act.” I’m not sure that the way opera plays with time and action allows any room for acting, as we’ve been trained by film and TV to enjoy.

  7. Jeanne Fuchs says

    I think this is just another of Greg Sandow’s consistently negative comments about classical music, and I wish he’d cheer up.

    The HD broadcasts of Met operas into theaters the last few years have certainly illustrated acting ability by the singers – we have been amazed by the emotions expressed by the singers (while singing and moving) and marvel at anyone’s capability to do three things at once, as well as think about the three that come next. Certainly some are better than others, but after all, we don’t judge stage actors by their singing ability, do we?

  8. Rafael de Acha says

    The technical demands an operatic singing actor faces are totally different from those confronting a theater, film or television actor. Although far too many to list or discuss in detail, they primarily have to do with how the music dictates to the singing actor how he should move, react to the others on stage or express in gesture, facial expression and vocal inflection the particular dramatic circumstance. Having witnessed many times in my teaching and directing career the fumbling of non-singing actors when asked to act in an operatic or musical theater context, I can assure you that you are talking about apples and pears and trying to subject them to the same sort of evaluation. I would beg to disagree with some of yours and Anne Midgette’s generalizations and would present as evidence to the contrary, the acting work of Tito Gobbi, Geraint Evans, Herman Uhde, Renato Capecchi, Italo Tajo, Nicolai Gedda and Maria Callas (from past generations) and from the here and now generation that of Natalie Dessay, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Diana Damrau, Elina Garanca and Joyce Di Donato.

  9. Darlene Moak says

    I disagree too. I think many opera singers are amazing actors. Perhaps you missed “Don Carlo” and the astonishing performance of Simon Keenlyside? The other singers in that production provided breathtaking singing AND acting as well. Furthermore, most film & stage actors don’t have to act AND sing opera at the same time. I’m happy to put up with some “mugging” if the singing is good. I don’t think that “better acting” will draw people to opera who wouldn’t otherwise have come to hear the singing.

  10. Megan Browne Helm says

    I wrote about this last year on my blog Raw Organum. I mentioned having seen an opera at the metroplex where having a close-up of a diva manipulating her eyebrows, and staring vacantly (I suppose inside of her own body) to reach her high note made for a really creepy facial expression. Sadly, she was supposed to be singing about her love for the other character but she looked almost crazed. HD broadcasts are become so popular that singers really need to learn the finer points of acting on film. The other part of the blog talked about the dangers of singing/or playing with your eyes closed.

  11. sarasotabarbie says

    Opera Singers are INDEED taught how to act. That doesn’t mean all of them are necessarily great actors – one can have a glorious instrument in their throat without great acting chops. But the assertion that opera singers aren’t taught how to act is, quite simply, incorrect. Every conservatory voice department has acting classes required for all singers. Many young artists programs having acting classes required for all singers. And many rehearsals begin with libretto reads, where each line is translated, every word is analyzed, the meaning and the source of the drama is explored, and the question of how the music serves the drama is dissected. I have without doubt seen performances where the singers CLEARLY were uncomfortable in their role as actors onstage, and that should be an important part of ANY stage performance – including dance.

  12. BobG. says

    Given how stilted many great librettos are and given the difficulty and length of of most operatic arias (which usually contain exact repeats and recapitulations), I’m not sure that there is much room for acting in an opera. What kind of acting is the singer to do during a 6 or 8 minute da capo aria in a Handel opera, or during an 18 minute dialogue in a Wagner opera? Think of an aria like Martern aller Arten: how on earth are you going to act that? Exactly how realistic should Leonora be?

    Traditionally, acting hasn’t mattered if the singer has a voice. There’s a clip of Bjorling and Tebaldi in a performance of Boheme, in which it is quite clear that Bjorling had the stage presence of a middle-aged pharmacist, yet that voice! Who cared if he could act?

    If anything is wrong with opera now, it’s that it is being cast and sung for broadcast in HD, and not for voice. (Remember what Deborah Voight went through because she didn’t look good in that little black dress.). See, in fact, the review of Lucia in the NYT on 02/26/11, in which the critic’s chief complaint is that Natalie Dessay adapted her performance for the camera, not the vast audience in the theater.

    Still, I know, the trend is against voice and in favor of looks and “acting.” A recent Carmen I saw at the Met was very well acted (and danced) yet had minimal impact because the voice was colorless. That’s the future.

  13. BobG. says

    A P.S. to my previous comment.

    While singers may not be “acting,” the music, words, and dramatic situation in opera almost always provide a bigger dramatic payoff than any staged play. No one applauds after a Hamlet soliloquy, but nearly every aria gets a round of applause (which ought to break the dramatic flow, but somehow never does). Much of what is dependent on the individual actor in a play is accomplished by the music in an opera. Moreover, most dramatic plays today strive for a deadening realistic effect (and never end with multiple deaths). Opera is the opposite of realistic, and we should cherish its peculiarities, not try to tame them and water them down. If I had to choose between Meryl Streep in Armida and Renee Fleming, I’d go with Fleming.

  14. says

    I have two thought to add to this debate.

    The first is that the vast majority of the world’s opera singers came to opera through their love of, and training in, singing. (There are a few exceptions, such as the Canadian tenor Roger Honeywell, who was an actor before he got into opera.) As a stage director who works both in opera and spoken theatre once told me: “When an actor walks into a rehearsal room, they’re there to act. That’s not the case with opera singers. They’re there to sing, and you have to get them to act.”

    My other point is that even when opera singers act well – and I agree that many do – the results are different from what audiences have come to expect from a play, or a movie, or television. In opera, so much of what a singer does on stage is dictated by the score and controlled by the conductor that operatic acting inevitably looks more stylized and less “natural” than a spoken performance. Saying opera singers can’t act is like saying Japanese Noh artists can’t act. They can – it’s just a different kind of acting than we’re used to.

    That said, it would be a fine thing if all opera singers were thrust into a spoken play at some point in their careers.

  15. Marcio M. Menendez says

    I think operatic performance and film and theatre acting are different; opera requires a somewhat exaggerated movement and volume so that the audience in a large, cavernous space can hear/see. Just this past week music critic from the Times complained about Natalie Dessay’s acting in Lucia and thought she was very understated thinking she was “in front of the cameras” for an HD telecast.

  16. says

    Fascinating debate here, but I think that making any blanket statement in and of itself is going to cause some contreversial responses. Perhaps that was the idea. I think that the first major issue is that there is good and bad acting. David Mamet talks about extensively in his book True and False about the misnomer that making funny voices and that equals acting. The moment I become aware of the acting, or of the technique of an actor, they have failed in their task. Great actors be it on stage or screen or anywhere are few and far between, great opera singers.

    Second, a great actor, be it opera or otherwise, is not a product of their training. Honestly a great anything is not a product of their training, but rather a synthesis of the training and the avenues of thought and research it inspired combined with the particular DNA of that person.

    Third thing is a manner of scale. You need to express differently when a camera is inches away from your face and it will be put on a screen that will then make said face 30 feet high, as opposed to on a stage in a 99 seat theater, which needs to be bigger, and then of course when you get to one of the large opera houses where the first row of the audience is 50 ft away. Different scale.

    Fourth is that there is no successful school of opera singer training. We have tons of opera training programs and university programs, but none of them are consistently producing artists at a level that is awe inspiring. There are some who create better connected or who have a better understanding of the craft, but the craft is taught, the art must be learnt.

    I think that if there was a real concerted interest in revitalizing the art of opera in this country, we would have to stop with all of these training programs, competitions, and everything else, and make a push for potential artists to make actual opera, not a 22 minute of the magic flute on the gym floor for 3rd graders.

  17. Gwenlyn says

    Of course one always looks for convincing performances on any stage, in any artistic form. But if what you want is great acting to reveal the story, go to the theater. Opera is a musical form. Go there and listen. The characters, the narrative, the emotion is revealed to you through the music. Two recent and successful examples from the Met…. “Nixon in China” and “Iphegenie”. Operas with almost no action, but characters and tensions revealed almost entirely through the music.

    How musicians present themselves on stage is another issue. Most do not know how to do it, aren’t taught, look nervous or glum or scared witless, and certainly do not consider that they are sharing with an audience that really wants to enjoy.

  18. Gianmarco says

    This post, and Midgette’s article do seem to have been designed to provoke. I find it hard to believe that a critic as prolific as Midgette, who sees so much, could actually believe all operatic acting is bad. Come on! In general, as others have said, so much of the drama or comedy in opera comes out of the text, and its delivery through music. If a singer is very skilled at this, it alone can be enough “drama” to fulfill any audience members expecations, and then some. All of the young singers I see who are in the midst of intense training spend inordinate amounts of time drilling text, its meaning, pronunciation – they work very hard at this. Do they need to look/act like Natalie Portman – I really don’t think so. It’s a completely different medium with its own requirements. First, I want to be moved by a dramatic/specific delivery of the libretto by a singer with great technique. If they happen to conform to more conventional societal norms of physical beauty, “good acting” etc., then fine, but that’s a bonus. I agree that as great as the MET HD transmissions are, opera can’t go too far in the direction of only employing singers who look good in an HD close-up!