Opera acting finale

OK — my last post for now (most likely) on opera acting.

First, I come to this subject with some experience. I’ve sung major opera roles, directed opera, conducted opera, and had productions of operas that I’ve written. Plus I’ve written incidental music for theater productions, and worked closely with stage actors. One of my operas was premiered with stage actors in all the roles. All this happened in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, but still — I did all these things. 

Stage acting varies. It’s taught in different ways, and how it’s done and thought about in the UK isn’t the same, by and large, as the way it’s done in the US. Or, anyway, that was true when I was involved in theater. 

Maybe things have changed. But I’d think one key thing about stage acting in the US is still the same, because it’s so basic. The basis of acting technique, at least as I used to know it, is that you quickly mobilize your inner energy to act each moment of your role. You mobilize emotions, thoughts, and your body — everything that goes into forming the character you play onstage. 

And maybe I should say you mobilize all this instantly, rather than quickly. Because that’s how you react to the people you’re onstage with. Someone says a line to you, and your response flies out, fueled by the inner energy you instantly can gather. 

This can be taught. Genius can’t be taught, but technique can be, and while opera singers are vocalizing, and being taught languages, acting students are learning to mobilize their inner energy, and their inner intentions. They won’t, on the whole, gesticulate because they think they need to make a gesture. Their gestures, instead, will arise from what’s going on inside. And will be different, most likely, for every character they play. 

So is this something you can’t do if you’re singing opera? No way. In fact, if you did it, opera singing would be easier. An actor, at every moment, brings together a conception of the character, the meaning of each line, a feeling in the body that goes with both these things, emotions that go with both, and then electrical reactions to words, looks, body language, tones of voice, and much more, coming from others. 

No way you couldn’t add singing to all of that. You learn to sing opera, you get your vocal technique in place, and you solve the technical problems of each moment in your role. When it’s time to sing a phrase, you mobilize your technical command of it, based on experience, and practicing. No way that can’t be brought into your actor’s mobilization. The actor’s mobilization, in fact, will give you extra energy to sail through tricky vocal moments. 

Which is, speaking more generally, what happens when anyone (or at least anyone good) performs classical music. You learn the music. You practice the technical stuff required for every phrase. But when you play, you normally don’t think of your technique. You’ve internalized that. So what you mobilize, for every phrase, is your musical intention. Which then brings your technique in line (always assuming that you have the technique to start with). If you’re singing opera, and you’d learned acting, as I’m describing it here, your musical intention would be part of the larger thing you mobilize at each moment. When you mobilize your acting, you mobilize the music (and the singing), too. 

Here’s how it makes a difference. When I’ve worked with opera singers, I see them (as a general rule — of course there are exceptions) learn the music first. And how to sing the music. The words are secondary, though of course you can’t sing the music without the words. But still, the words seem pinned to the notes. They don’t flow the way they would in speech, or in pop or Broadway singing. (This is one reason, though not the only one, that it’s hard to understand the words when opera singers sing.)

And the meaning of the music may come last. While when I’ve worked with actors — for instance, when I’ve written music that they have to sing — they seem to start with what the words and music mean. Or, if the music’s difficult, they’ll do what they have to do to learn it, but immediately when they start to sing it, they bring the meaning in. Of course the meaning will develop, as rehearsals proceed. And some actors bring much deeper meaning in than others do. But still — the meaning is (almost) always there. 

Now put this on stage, in a performance. The opera singer, far too often, looks the same, apart from costume and makeup, in each role. Her body language doesn’t change. Her gestures will be what they always are. Her voice will sound the same. She might have three or four tones of voice — an energetic tone, a tender tone, a happy tone, a distressed or angry tone. 

An actor, meanwhile — or anyway a good actor — has much more variety, in gestures, body language, tone of voice. I studied singing for several years with the late Olga Averino, who’d had an impressive recital and orchestral career in the 1920s, specializing in new music. (Singing, for instance, the “Lied der Lulu” and Ravel’s Scheherezade with Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony.)

Olga would have studio classes for the singers studying with her. One of us would get up and sing a Schubert song. Olga would stop us, and say, in her Russian accent, “What is the person singing feeling?” Meaning the character who sings the song. 

“This person is angry,” the student might reply. “But which kind of anger?” Olga would flash. And then she’d demonstrate, singing the first few phrases of the song six different ways, with six distinctly different shades of anger. And yes, some classical singers can do this. But actors can be taught to do it. (Olga, I have to say, never taught us how, though she could do it vividly herself.) It’s a matter of conceiving the kinds of anger vividly — in a combination, once again, of thoughts, body feeling, and emotion — and then mobilizing the blend at the instant that you need it. 

The other difference that I’ve noticed is that actors respond to each other. Their performance changes, depending on who they’re performing with. I’m not going to say this doesn’t happen in opera, but it happens far more on stage or in the movies. I remember once watching an Otello telecast from the Met, with Jon Vickers and Renata Scotto as Otello and Desdemona. Formidable, both. And admirable. 

But they had no relationship. Vickers, as far as I could see, was doing his Otello, while Scotto did her Desdemona. There was very little I could see that was theirs, something they did together. Which made the performance somehow blank, no matter how powerful either singer was alone. 

By contrast, when my opera The Richest Girl in the World Finds Happiness was premiered, all four roles were played by stage actors. (I wrote the piece in a Broadway/pop style.) Most of the work in rehearsal went into the relationships among the characters. 

The opera ran for many performances at a lunchtime theater. A few months later it was revived, for many more performances. But this time with a different actress in the title role. The first actress had been regal, strong, commanding (though also very funny). The new one was sweeter (though funny and commanding in her own way). So the whole production changed. All the relationships now were different, to accomodate a Richest Girl who was more sweet than regal. 

(If you’d like to hear the piece, go here, and scroll down to the bottom of the page. You’ll find links to a recording and score of the opera. And if you listen to the recording, you’ll hear me playing the piano, something I once, sigh, could do.)

And yes, I understand that changes like this — or, at least, working hard on them — might not be possible in opera, with  productions so often revived with new casts, and without the original director there, leaving no opportunity (assuming there was time) to

recast the whole thing with new personalities. And that’s just one difficulty. 

But why do we accept that? If we understood that new casting meant a new way of acting any opera, then maybe we’d change the way productions are revived and rehearsed. (Please note — I’m talking about relationships between the characters. I understand very well that in, let’s say, the Met’s Lucia, each Lucia who comes along will do the role at least to some extent her own way.) 

Finally, an example from my singing days, of how to mobilize intention. I was singing Balstrode, in Peter Grimes, in a Yale production. I was a composition student at the Yale School of Music, but I also sang. The director — Jim Crabtree was his name, and he was wonderful — wasn’t happy with how the singer doing Grimes and I were doing our duet. 

So he decided not to block it — that is, not to tell us where to stand, when to move. Instead he put us in a mostly empty room (I think with a pianist), and told us to make the duet happen. If I had to seize Grimes’s attention, then I had to really seize it. I had to move and project my energy in such a way — maybe, for instance, by literally blocking Grimes from walking in a direction I didn’t choose — that he’d have to listen to me.

And he’d have to do the same to me. Let me tell you — this mobilized our energy. Pretty quickly, we developed inner maps, so to speak, of what happened in the scene, maps that carried quite a bit of physical and emotional force. And we’d use that energy to bring the scene alive. 

As I remember, Jim never blocked the scene, never told us where to stand and when to move. He just put us on the stage, in the set, and we ourselves transferred what we’d developed in the rehearsal room. 

That’s an example of how actors learn to mobilize themselves, by doing exercises that worked like our rehearsals. And in our case, at least, it worked marvelously. We learned the inner art of acting. 

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  1. says

    Classical singers often do not have the requisite technique to free their instrument, so they can think about acting, or anything else. So in their attempts to hold it all together something suffers, sometimes more than one element.

    Excellence training presupposes many long hours of dedicated, supervised practice until the technical hurdles are past. Instrumentalists who start their training early, have this aspect under control provided they are motivated and diligent.

    Singers often do not. They are pushed in front of the public early and ill trained only to crash and burn before their time. Nodes, vocal crises, thsi is not the stuff of legends.

    Can a good singer learn to act? Of course. Will a myriad of colors flow naturally for them? Yes, if they sing with a trained instrument that gets them to the essence of their true sound.

    The fact that we have eloquent performances in opera, concert and song, tells us it is possible.

  2. David Anchel says

    As an opera singer, I agree that acting, understanding the words, the action implied by them is important for good operatic performances, but some of your comments are not quite justified. I started singing in the 70’s and everyone I knew who was serious took acting classes. However, there are two sides to the issue of which comes first the words or the music, as discussed in Strauss’s Capriccio. Actor’s do not have the constraint or the help of the composers interpretation of the words in his music. Those performances where the music is ignored for the words are ludicrous.

    I much of 19th century opera the composer was the primary progenitor of the work. The librettist was often a hack who was able to create words upon which the composer would tell the story of the opera.

    You criticism of opera singers like Vickers does not take into account the nature of the opera business, as opposed to drama. Great actors do not go from theater to theater performing the same role in the same play with little or no rehearsal time with the other actors.

    Acting and good direction is essential to a wonderful operatic performance, but without great interpretation of the music by the singer it will fall flat. Do not throw out the baby with the bathwater.