I’m grateful for the pushback I’ve gotten in comments here, about my post on opera acting. It helps me clarify my ideas and my presentation of them, and also clarifies some points about the future of classical music.

One thing to note: when my wife, Anne Midgette, talked about problems with opera acting in the piece of hers I linked to, she wasn’t just stating her own critique of how opera singers act (which I share). She was quoting opera singers who’d had a chance to act in films or on Broadway, learned some very basic things about acting they’d never known, and whose reaction — boiling it down to two bullet points — was:

    • Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?
    • I’m putting it all into action immediately in my opera roles.

Which helps, I’d think, reply to the comments about opera being different from stage acting — that opera doesn’t move at the pace of stage plays or films, or that singing requires such concentrated  attention that acting, as stage and film actors do it,  naturally can’t be the focus. Apparently the opera singers who were exposed to stage and film acting didn’t think these things. 

I’ll discuss the second point in my next post. But, about the first point, surely opera often does move at exactly the same pace as something on stage, meaning that lines of dialogue alternate between characters, as opposed to people singing on their own (as in arias or ensembles) for long stretches of time. Think of Otello, the scenes between Iago and Otello, and Otello and Desdemona. Or just about all of Falstaff, or the scene between Philip and the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo, or Rigoletto and Sparafucile in Rigoletto, or Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth. Or endless scenes in endless Verdi operas. 

Or Tosca and Scarpia in the second act of Tosca, or almost all the first act of Die Walküre, or Hans Sachs and Eva in the second act of Die Meistersinger, or the start of the first act of Götterdämmerung, plus almost all of the second act, and virtually all of Das Rheingold. Plus all of Pelléas and Wozzeck, and every passage of secco recitative in every opera where it’s found, and of course the spoken dialogue in Die Zauberflöte and other works. 

But then even sustained singing needs to be acted, in an opera. Characters, moods, situations differ, and have to be brought to life with tones of voice, audible emotions, body language. An aria might change in the middle — “Eri tu,” for instance, the famous baritone aria in the last act of Ballo in Maschera, where you’re angry and terribly hurt in the first part, and wistfully vulnerable in the second. You can’t just sing the second part more softly. Your entire tone and body need to change. 

And this is just the shortest outline of the places in opera that need acting. My list of passages that proceed with the pace of stage dialogue could be extended tremendously. Mozart: in Figaro, the second act finale and the Count/Susanna duet, all the big ensembles in Cosí and Don Giovanni, and so on, and so on. 

And how does anyone think the scenes in Wagner that so famously are often boring — David’s explanation of the Meistersingers’ rules, Wotan’s monologue in the second act of Walküre, King Mark in Tristan, Gurnemanz in Parsifal — how does anyone think these scenes can ever come off, if the singers don’t constantly change their tone, and emphasis, and bodies, in endless large and small ways? As actors would, in other words. And as Wagner said he wanted. 

And then there’s my larger point. Regardless of how, exactly, it’s appropriate for singers to behave on stage, someone coming to opera from the outside — someone used not just to stage and film acting, but to cabaret and rock shows — will very likely say that nothing plausible or interesting is happening on stage. 

That’s not just because the singers aren’t acting (in the full sense of that word). Bruce Springsteen doesn’t act, but his personality can fill a large arena. Many movie actors can’t, strictly speaking, act — Cary Grant, for instance, essentially played the same part in most of the movies he made. (Compare Philip Seymour Hoffman, who morphs into someone different in every role.) But he did it with such charm and presence that he filled the screen. 

Likewise many singers of the past, Renata Tebaldi, for instance, or Gino Bechi. Giant personalities! In an age, now past, when opera singers, whether or not they acted, filled the opera house with their own personalities, then opera was something to go to see. I think it’s watered down now. 

Finally, about exceptions that commenters cited — Tito Gobbi, Maria Callas, others. Well, of course! Gobbi and Callas are such deep and truthful actors, changing their expression so powerfully from one moment to the next, that their Rigoletto recording is one of the only opera performances where (in their scenes, at least) without following a libretto I’ve hung on every word. 

Remember that Callas moved very little on stage, thus putting into practice one of the main thing the singers Anne talked to said they learned. 

Some other examples of true acting I might cite, from opera singers (and no, this short list isn’t my complete one; just a few examples): 

    • Cesare Valletti, singing Nemorino in a 1950s Italian film of L’elisir d’amore, wearing (or nervously wringing) an old, battered hat. Some of the most lovely, truthful comic acting I’ve ever seen anywhere. 
    • Franco Corelli, whenever I saw him onstage, and in the video of a 1957 Naples production of Forza, where he’s so real, so motivated from within, that you can almost weep watching him, even with the sound turned off.
    • Gidon Saks, as Hagen in a Washington National Opera concert performance of Götterdämmerung, where I hung on every word, and where, in his monologue at the end of the first scene of Act 1, Saks had so much watchful menace in his motionless body that he almost didn’t have to sing. 
    • Joyce El-Khoury, a wonderful young soprano, as both Lauretta and Angelica in Il Trittico last summer at Lorin Maazel’s Castleton festival. She became two different people, with such such truth and pathos as Angelica, and such bravado as Lauretta (she wasn’t pleading with her father in “O mio babbino caro”; she was threatening him, overwhelming him, seeing Lauretta as a real piece of work, thoroughly Italian). Even her reactions to things other people sang lit up the stage. And not because she moved, or gestured. She didn’t show us her reactions. She simply had them. Once more, it all came from inside.
And about acting from the inside…watch the video, which so luckily exists, of a concert of arias that Callas gave in Hamburg. During the orchestral introduction to each aria, without moving, without any gestures, she becomes each character, doing it entirely from within. 

And that, as I’ll discuss in my next post, is exactly where true acting starts. Actors learn to do it in drama school. Opera singers are, for the most part, never taught it.

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  1. Olof Eric Cedergren says

    Relative to your last paragraph; In the grand style, most stage actors never develope the flawless vocal treasure that opera singers spend a lifetime seeking.

    I love your blog, and enjoy your discussions.

  2. ariel says

    I was wondering where you where going with this , since much is so off track concerning the singers mentioned – just to pick

    3 – Vickers , Gobbi , Callas -none of the above entered into the characters they portrayed , -they carefully substituted themselves for the characters with such crafty artifice that people thought they were watching great acting when it all

    was a continued creation of their personality . That is not to say that they could not move you , but it always ends with “almost” to tears but not quite

    since it is all artifice . It is

    always spectacular , it is the

    Vickers’ Otello , the Gobbi this

    and the Callas that . Everyone pretends to serve the composer

    even Vickers in his spectacular

    “Grimes” which has it the composer disliked as not beingthe Grimes he created . As for the Callas Hamburg she

    fussed beyond all human endurance, artifice at its best .

    very few opera singers get past their stage personalities ” most having resonance where their brains ought to be” to quote the famous musicologist Anna Russell -at rare times it does

    come together , such as Diana Damrau as Queen of the Night

    which one should look up, just

    to see and hear how “that aria “should be sung and how powerful it becomes as a piece of theatre rather than just chirping top notes to please the audience air heads .It really is

    the Queen of the Night sung by Damrau and not the reverse.

    Vickers , Gobbi , Callas could not do this due to their vocal technical limitations – so must act as vampires .Good acting in opera is a dream as long

    as singers are taught that only

    top notes matter and makes up for acting especially if you can hit a high E and bring the house down and hopefully

    not fall into the orchestra pit .

    You are not going to get acting from something called La Stupida or Stupenda , whatever ……

  3. says

    To mention singing actors, Chaliapin must be mentioned. Of the ones we never heard but heard of there is Jean Baptiste Faure, the great baritone, and Luigi Lablache who emerge as great actors who took care with their characterizations.

    Helen Mirren lately said she learned from Depardieu that all you need to do is read what is on the page, and do it. I think the same is true for acting in opera.If you truly read what is on the page and just do what is there you can become brilliant without any artifice.

    Love the Helen Mirren quote. Though it does remind me of what Descartes so famously said about truth — that anything we clearly and distinctly perceive is true. Easier to say than to put into action!

    Among 19th century opera singers, Giuditta Pasta — the first Norma, among much else — was often considered the greatest actor. At one point she played the title role in Rossini’s Otello, written for a tenor. But she wanted to act the role, so she sang it as a soprano.

    Another great actor was the baritone who was the first Rigoletto. I’m forgetting his name. But a prominent 19th century critic said he had a useful vocal range of just one octave, so he must have been a powerful actor to make the role work for him.