Opera, Shakespeare, Noh: Three Suggestions For Acting Singers
Updated: Aug 7
When I was younger, I spent time in acting classes alongside singers.
I have since directed, written for, and otherwise collaborated with great opera singers. Having recently spoken to an actor of my acquaintance, who was very interested in how opera singers approach acting.
As am I. Because I think a lot of opera singers are given tools that will work, but not as well as others might.
Having been pondering how I do coaching on occasion, and where my tools come from, I’d like to outline some of my thinking (following previous blogs on my directorial method here, here, and here), in case these suggestions are of interest.
If they’re not, quite alright. I’m not sure at all they’d work for everyone, and if they did, they’d not be useful any more.
The core reasoning
Never has been, never will be.
Verismo, the most famous ‘realist’ school, might be better understood as emotional realism.
That makes sense immediately, doesn’t it? If someone described La Boheme to you as realistic, you’d be rightly puzzled. They’re singing all the time.
But emotionally realistic? Yes, 100%.
However, I’ve noticed a lot of singers are using tools designed for realistic acting - Stanislavsky-derived systems.
They say they seek to cultivate the emotion of their character in themselves, and then project it onto the stage. For my money, this often leads to problems:
Singers have to concentrate on singing technique while performing.
Yes, this can be trained to the point it’s reasonably intuitive, but it’s a matter of concentration. Relying on a semi-intuitive system of acting forces a split between reflective and intuitive technique which I’ve seen act as a block.
It leads to a contrast between an artificial mode of being (singing) and a ‘realistic’ one (naturalistic acting).
This can be a deliberate choice for great effect. It’s often not, leaving a performer washing mugs (or similar) to fill out time, because their acting style doesn’t allow them to match action to musical phrasing easily.
Many operas aren’t about the internal lives of the characters.
I’ve just written about something similar, so will move on. In short: we can make Mozart work as a Stanislavsky-style work. But he’s writing about a hundred years earlier, optimising for very different tools.
I’ve heard numerous singers describe feeling emotionally devastated after doing a show. On top of the physical strains of singing, they’ve dunked their head into an enormous emotional maelstrom that at best they find exhausting, and at worst is more than they can cope with. Other tools are available, and might be a good alternative option.
Frankly, opera is filled with characters who do not act in a realistic way, are not meant to, and even if they were, performers share little lived experience with them, and lack the time to do detailed research on, say, what exactly it was to be a rural peasant in 19th century Italy. This leads either to wild leaps (“Well, my parents are doctors, but we grew up in a rural area, so I understand…”) or poor research (“Of course he believes wholeheartedly in Catholic dogma, which hasn’t changed since the opera was written!”), both of which are poor foundations to build operatic performance on. Other methods avoid these problems.
Here are, from my own craft and path, three forms that singers might enjoy looking for some alternative tools.
Comedy (Especially sketch and stand-up)
Comedy is fun, a lot of hard work, and as you may have noticed, great comedians can often do serious roles very well, but the reverse is not true.
This is partly because comedy allows you to concentrate on characters who must be defined clearly, but often without much detail.
This is very good for opera. Both forms have a lot of room for ‘This person is a KING, who is ARROGANT and VICIOUS’ as the entirety of a character.
Comedy can teach how to convey all of that while walking onto a stage.
Another benefit is that comedy doesn’t generally like realism. Approaching King Smile-n-Stab with the sombre tones and character analysis used for Chekov will not help. Have less, and let go of imposing tiny extra details. Instead, refine the ones you’ve got - can a change of hand placement augment the conveying of ‘Vicious’?.
This also helps opera. Because, as above, it’s not realistic.
The main benefit, however, is that comedy forces you to think about the audience constantly. If they’re not laughing, there’s a problem.
This changes the style of acting, making it more responsive, while also focusing the energy and thought on ‘how will this read?’
This is something I (admittedly, as a director, for whom that question is a large part of the job) think is helpful.
Noh theatre is harder to get into. If you can get a hold of Komparu’s The Noh Theatre, it will help.
But as a form that is highly abstracted, involving singing, and a whole bunch of internal arcane rules and canons, it is a useful comparison.
Partly, what it teaches is simply a different way of viewing the relationship of performer, music, words, and movement. Which is in itself useful.
Partly it teaches a way of holding onesself which is tied to the physical demands of the performance style - one which I suspect better singers than myself might find very interesting as a base on which to build.
But above all, it has a focus on (once again) an external form of acting, and one that (like some operatic acting) is tied to the music. The arm goes up here, to this position, and that is correct.
It’s not for everyone, but it feels more like the descriptions of singers’ process when singing (my vocal folds are like X, my mask like Y, no I am not a highly-trained singer I just work with them).
By working on the external form, the energy of the performer is clarified and focused around the room. And yes, it sounds wishy-washy, but if you’ve ever seen a really good Noh performer live, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Every movement is precise, and the performer is more there than most people are.
There are thousands of books on interpreting Shakespeare, all of which are wrong, all of which are right.
Above all, what I’d focus on is the treatment of the verse.
Shakespeare gives you a limited set of options for how to emphasise his text, and yet within that are almost infinite possibilities.
Second, he offers characters who are complex and grand, and above all: whose scale is both within the serious almost-real of many operas, but also of the more-than-life quality of opera.
To try and make his characters everyday, like normal people, would be to crush them. Instead, the performer’s task is to form themselves into what he’s written. A growth of self, not a warping of the material.
And finally, he offers a known canon. One where yes, of course we all have a cultural understanding of Macbeth or Hamlet (even if it’s just “stabby” and “skull-lover”), but we also want to form whatever that role is in our current moment.
Opera-culture is, for my money, much less thoughtful and flexible than Shakespeare-culture. By looking at how someone might step back and find something new in a monologue quoted by everyone, there’s something to be learnt about how to make a old, over-loved aria feel alive.
These are my things.
I might also talk about interactive theatre, poultry herding, or board games. But they’re less useful for the purpose.
What I suppose my ultimate caveat would be is this: find something that’s yours, and broadens your interpretative palette.
For me, as a director, it’s always much more fun when someone comes in with an extensive knowledge of an ancient civilisation, or has actually read all the Great Works of Romantic literature, or is an obsessive fan of fringe drag shows.
Because while it may not come up in rehearsal, it will give a set of ideas that nobody else has. That can help you stand out and - above all - find new ways through old problems.
And it’s also more fun than discussing the latest online discourse that everyone’s already seen. For me, at least.