Coda: Just Act Natural


Coda Brando HDL 112
© Warner Bros./Photofest 2012

Pity the plight of the opera singer in these times.

Not only is he expected to have mastered the difficult technique of singing, be proficient in many languages, look the part and fit into the costume; he is required to act "naturalistically" — a description one may assume to mean acting that doesn't appear to be acting. Alas, the once highly respected "singer" continues to diminish, as other components in opera rise in importance. A recent article in the program of the Metropolitan Opera states, "[Anna Bolena] has resurfaced whenever there have been notable singing actors available to do justice to its demanding leading roles." The splendid action verb "singing," so long admired in opera, has been demoted to a lowly adjective used to describe a type of actor desired by opera companies. 

If opera companies truly desire singers to become accomplished actors, these same opera companies have much to reconsider when it comes to their early training. Although there have been good, "natural" acting singers appearing on opera stages for years, many conservatories and music schools offer limited acting classes to opera singers. Many opera companies with young-artist programs offer no acting training at all. If training is offered, it is often in the form of visiting coaches or master classes with no continuity. Even when there is an established acting program, it often is given little importance: if the singer needs to make up a voice lesson, it is the acting class he can afford to miss. Another singer needs a costume fitting? Take him out of the acting class. A complacent attitude by those in authority at the educational level quickly influences young singers, who too soon find themselves on the opera stage with no acting skills. Music schools and young-artist programs consistently fail to realize that acting is a technique as demanding as singing. It is a technique requiring years of training, and it includes many exercises in vocal training, emotional and sensory recall, movement and period style. 

Some of these exercises are similar to a singer's exercises, but many are not. There are as many acting techniques as there are techniques for teaching singing. Some acting techniques work well for the singer, while others, such as method acting, with its emphasis on emotional recall, do not work unless the singer has spent years learning his emotional parameters. Singers cannot always risk vocal distress by fully embracing the emotional realism and immediacy of the moment dictated by text or the dramatic scope of the music. Perhaps those in the opera industry demanding "naturalistic" acting from the opera singer have forgotten that opera is not a natural world. It is a world that carries the singer and his listeners to heightened reactions. What appears natural in real life or on camera does not serve the opera singer in a large opera house, where the intentional wink or subtle gesture goes unseen by audience members who have forgotten their opera glasses. Opera music is highly stylized, and opera singers are constrained by costumes, social customs and specific movement of the period. One cannot "naturally" wear panniers with no knowledge of proper hand placement or foot maneuvering. Perhaps those who clamor for "naturalistic" acting could better serve the singer by demanding education in stagecraft and period movement that would empower the singer to feel "natural" in his stage environment. 

Of course there are elements in opera that conspire against those who seek naturalistic acting. The primary difference between acting and singing opera is that the actor is alone in his interpretation of a character throughout the performance. It is the actor's immediate decision how and when emotions rise and recede, how long to pause before reacting vocally or physically to what has just happened in the scene. Unless the actor is suffering from laryngitis, the condition of the voice is seldom given a second thought. The opera singer walks a more demanding tightrope — and that tightrope is the music.

Not long ago, while directing the love duet at the beginning of Act IV in Roméo et Juliette, I worked diligently with the singers to ensure that they were secure and relaxed together. We explored how to act passionately, yet appear young and inexperienced in lovemaking; how to hold one another; how to caress; where to put one's legs and when to change positions. Suddenly we realized that there was someone else in the bed; the intimate love duet had become a ménage à trois. That someone else was the pesky conductor, demanding to be part of the scene — and he wasn't really in the bed; he was in the pit. Nonetheless, he was there to ensure that it was the music dictating the emotional and physical life of the singer. 

I am dismayed when people say they go to the opera to hear singing actors. I go to the opera to hear singers. How wonderful it is if they also can act! spacer

DONA D. VAUGHN is artistic director of PORTopera, a summer festival in Portland, Maine, and of the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater. She studied acting with Lee Strasberg and Uta Hagen.

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