New Opera's Demands on the Actor

Contemporary opera has a bit of a reputation. Audience members and critics alike seem to agree that it's hit or miss (even if they can name one or two they really loved). Of course, there are several operas by great composers of the past that don't merit being staged today, but these complaints are nonetheless what you'll hear on the street after a contemporary opera has premiered. A lot of people wish that they could just see proven classics at the opera house. Why? Well, I can think of one thing that older opera has over newer opera: it is a known entity. Audiences like to know what they are getting before they walk into the hall. It's like going to the movies. Every year, a spate of "oscar contenders" comes out in the fall, but most of us don't rush to the theaters. Instead, we wait until the nominations have been released or at least until the critics have told us what to expect. On the other hand, when a new entry into the Star Wars franchise or the Marvel franchise comes out, we flock to the multiplexes in droves, because we know just what we're going to get. 

It's not only audiences that face a daunting guessing game when a new opera premieres; singing actors don't know what to expect either. Let's say you've been hired to perform in a new opera. You now want to know what to expect. What type of opera will it be? Will it be grand, in the tradition of Puccini? Will it be minimalist? Will it be a comic chamber piece for a small audience? All of these types of shows demand different approaches from the actor. 

Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Ricky Ian Gordon's fantastic new opera The House without a Christmas Tree. Walking in the door, I saw a set that belongs in a Chekhov play: a revolving house, intimate and totally realistic down to the beat up cushions on the couches. In the course of the show, the singers did housework and chatted around the kitchen table. No one used "baritone claw" or squared up to the audience for their big aria. Instead, they thoughtfully 'talked' with each other, sharing their feelings in nuanced stretches of well-acted drama. This was realism, right here on the opera stage, and it represented a kind of American light opera that owes as much to drama as to jazz or musical theater. Happily, the cast of seasoned pros was able to turn in performances worthy of a spoken-word drama you'd catch at the Alley Theater down the road. However, many of the nation's singing actors would have had no idea where to begin in employing this Stanislavsky-based method of acting. 

Lauren Snouffer and Daniel Belcher in  The House without a Christmas Tree  at HGO, 2017

Lauren Snouffer and Daniel Belcher in The House without a Christmas Tree at HGO, 2017

Here's the big point: singing actors need a toolbox. It is true that traditions like those of Stanislavsky and Meisner aren't perfect fits for opera (see my previous post), but the skills that they can provide through careful study are essential components of an actor's toolbox. Anyone without these skills, if caught in a show like The House without a Christmas Tree, had better hope they have a fantastic director like James Robinson to fashion an honest performance. Otherwise, they will find themselves pulling out tricks from the old pantomime playbook... and that's how you drive audiences away from this new and exciting kind of opera. This kind of opera demands good acting, and the music is informed and even led by the nuanced beats of the script.

At the end of La Boheme, even the most ham-fisted Rodolfo can pull a tear from the audience because Mr. Puccini has pumped the drama into the music fit to bust. A director once said to me, "you don't have to be a good actor in opera. The music does it for you." Not once did I hear a moment where Mr. Gordon used the music in this fashion. Instead, he trusted that the superb libretto by Royce Vavrek and the relaxed performances of the singing actors would build their own dramatic momentum, subtly aided and abetted by his lush harmonies until an organic climax was reached through the efforts of all. He recognizes that emotions on the stage are always payoffs to actions, not the other way around.

A final point: the actor who understands Stanislavsky or Meisner or Mamet can still do farce and pantomime, and in fact will turn in a better performance in those categories than an actor who does not. An actor who only knows pantomime and farce (that is, one who relies on preconceived, "canned" performances based on stereotype) will not be able to make the jump into the kinds of nuanced pieces that are increasingly defining contemporary American opera.

 

The Major Dilemma of Acting in Opera

The fundamental problem of acting in opera is how to balance two opposing things: the need to draw upon real human behaviors and emotions and the alienating element of the music. A Method-based actor in a play is trying to "live truthfully" at all times on the stage. Using the imaginary circumstances of the play, the actor is ideally immersed in a separate reality right in front of our eyes. The actor listens honestly, responds honestly, and lets the performance develop from there. In rehearsal, the actor speaks when it feels right to do so, and in a manner that arises from the truth of living in that moment. No pantomiming or artificial gesture is needed to express this truth, anymore than you would need to externalize something right now to demonstrate to an audience that you are reading this sentence. It's enough that you're actually reading it, nothing need be enhanced or added. 

I have seen theatre directors, really fine ones, try to get singing actors to master these skills quickly and to apply a rigid form of it to their performances. The result is usually mixed at best: singing actors standing in a totally still manner, "speaking" the music naturally, while clearly feeling that they are going against the grain of their instincts as performers. The actors invariably feel trapped and the performance is stilted.

Here are some of the reasons the performers probably feel trapped. 1) As singers, they have little ability to decide on tone of voice and the timing of their deliveries, as those choices are dictated by the vocal line, so they are at odds with their natural impulses. 2) While singing, the body is engaged in a difficult activity that requires stamina and focus, and which, moreover, pulls them away from the sensation of existing normally in the real world. 3) The music demands visual interpretation of some kind, and the actors feel they have to deliver this somehow, through gesture and movement. This last is the cause of much terrible acting in opera, all of it with the best of intentions.

So that's the dilemma the singing actor faces. On the one hand, the Method and it's edict to "live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." On the other hand, the music leading the actor away from any feeling of real life conditions.

I believe that the singing actor is also tasked with having honest insight into the human condition, and not just through vocal technique. The singer, too, is required to embody the character in the moment, not as a caricature but as a real person. 

A marriage of kinds is possible, as some of our finest performers have shown. For an example, see the video above of Maria Callas singing Bellini's NormaShe gestures hardly at all, and never seems to be trying to "show" anything. Rather, one gets the feeling that she is merely speaking text, candidly and with feeling. The result is far more riveting than if she had attempted to fill the long lines with physical business for entertainment's sake.

So, how can a singer marry the two? Many great singing actors have talked about the importance of keeping the emotional intent present in the singing, even during practice sessions. As singers, we get so involved in the technical aspect that we lose sight of the point! Put the emotion in as a sort of game. Play! If play is lost from the process, it becomes a gymnastics routine, rather than an act of expression. 

As a part of that process, we have to remember that part of investing emotion into our singing is finding out how those emotions really affect us and our behavior. There are many ways to do that, from acting classes and books on acting to simple self-observation. 

We singers can't be afraid to explore the truth of our behaviors and feelings any more than actors are afraid to do so. We draw on them just as much.