CLASSICAL SINGER MAGAZINE ARTICLE
OPERATIC ACTING ON THE THRESHOLD:
Some Controversies Laid Bare
by Marc Taslit
Acting in opera has recently become an au courant topic throughout and beyond the operatic world. Many of the people writing and talking about operatic acting seem to feel that there is some kind of competition between opera as a visual art (acting, stage directing and the "production values" ), and opera as an aural art (singing, playing and the music itself). Opinions run the gamut from terse dismissal of the subject ("After all, opera is a musical art"), to the term "Gesamtkunstwerk" ("complete art work"), which Richard Wagner used to describe his vision of opera as a unified art work that is created through the integrated combination of diverse art forms and technical media. Wagner implied that the audience can and should be stimulated emotionally, intellectually and spiritually by a variety of sources, not exclusively the musical ones.
If opera is, as some say, essentially about the music and how it is sung and interpreted, why bother to continue to present live, fully staged productions at all? Why not simply do concert versions of operas and make recordings? Stop being concerned with how to make opera work on film or video, and at the same time eliminate the issue of whether or not opera singers can act. Why not save all the money required for "production values," especially in view of the inordinately high costs of producing opera today, even on a modest scale? In short, simply consider opera an aural art.
On the other hand, even so venerable a source as The New Grove's Dictionary of Opera has stated, "The dramatic demands of opera have to a great extent prevailed against the tastes and habits of more traditional performers and their supporters." Since the number of operas available on film and video has increased dramatically in recent years, it would appear that the opera- interested world has gone on record (no pun intended) as supporting and, indeed, encouraging the "much-more-than- just-the-music" point of view.
The challenges facing opera at the turn of this millennium are based on neither the technical adequacy of today's opera singers nor the difficulties encountered in securing the funds required to underwrite productions. Of much greater significance for opera today and in the foreseeable future are two questions which are rarely addressed: What, in fact, is acting? and How must operatic acting change?
It is by now a commonplace to observe that the 20th century was the time in which post-industrial cultures around the globe became more pervasively visually oriented than ever before. Prior to this, radio was the most powerful means of mass communication, delivering voices and ambient sounds while leaving it up to the listeners to create the "pictures" in their individual imaginations. The shift from aural to visual orientation was brought about by the fact that increasingly greater numbers of people were able to see both real and fictional events on screen. This began with the earliest and simplest black-and-white projected films (the so-called "silent films," "moving pictures" or "movies" and later, newsreels), evolved to increasingly sophisticated "sound pictures" (the "talkies"), and finally to private, in-home entertainment (television and movies on video cassette). Each of these new developments brought technological advances such as improved picture quality, color film and increasingly sophisticated special effects. The motion picture camera has radically altered our ways of perceiving, thinking and, ultimately, behaving. Projected film images have forever altered the brain's neurology by inundating our brain receptors in ways unheard of throughout all previous human history.
The most important result of this has been to immeasurably enhance the power of pictures to "speak a thousand words." Consider the incalculable psychological and physiological effects of seeing, on screen, real events such as the Wright brothers' first flight, Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight and the euphoria of the subsequent "ticker-tape" parade, the Hindenburg dirigible disaster, the Kennedy and M. L. King assassinations, the Challenger missile tragedy or the Rodney King videotapes. Film, television and video have brought about irrevocable changes in our ways of seeing and responding because they reveal critical characteristics of our humanity and vulnerability. Inevitably, these changes have had a pervasive influence on how people now experience every aspect of both staged and filmed productions, and most particularly, how today's audiences perceive acting.
Contemporary audiences want to see acting which looks like authentic people experiencing the dramatic context as though it were their real lives. They hope to see human beings whose behavior reveals the humanity of each "character" in a way that is believable on both the visual and emotional levels. Viewers' emotions can no longer be aroused by simplistic, obvious play-acting because our increased visual discernment has greatly diminished our tolerance for such acting. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of the following realization for anyone who is currently involved in or is planning to become involved with the performance, production or educational aspects of the opera business.
Opera's musical expressiveness and vocal brilliance demand the powerful emotional impact of genuinely believable acting.
Acting is about human behavior; it is about responding in-the-moment and responding moment-by-moment to whatever is being said, sung or done. Contrary to the nearly universal misconception held by most actors, directors and acting teachers, acting, in our time, is not about the story, the words or even the action, any more than it is about the costumes, the sets or the lighting. For the actor, there are elements of stagecraft and "film-set savvy" to learn about, but these, too, are not acting.
It is crucial that the operatic world finally recognize the kind of acting today's audiences respond to.
Opera audiences are bored by watching actors who appear to be "characters in a story," actors who gesticulate with hands and body and do old-fashioned, outmoded and pre-practiced facial expressions. Actors and directors cannot expect today's audience to respond strongly to the acting when all they are seeing is a parade of actors busily "acting out characters" in an attempt to "appear real." (It is true, of course, that some productions are still intended to be highly "stylized," i.e., the director and the actors take a "play-acted" point of view from the outset. One might say that the directors of such productions wish to use the actors as movable stick-figures who are acting out caricatures of human beings, rather than attempting to be genuinely believable to the audience.)
The nature of the acting has enormous influence on the vitality of the audience's involvement and moment-to-moment response.
While there are many fine actors who have shown us what the words "real," "genuine," "authentic" and "believable" can mean as expressed through the actor's art, there are very few operatic actors about whom one can speak on this level. Many opera directors are not familiar with the capabilities of well-developed actors because they virtually never encounter any. As a result, these directors have always relied on play-acting and on moving "singing heads" around a stage, in the desperate hope that something resembling "aliveness" will happen and that the audience will be satisfactorily entertained by the play-acting.
Obviously, film and stage are two extremely different artistic media, each with its own specific technical characteristics and nature and manner of expression. Because of these differences they necessarily employ considerably different "languages." Yet the acting, both on stage and on screen, must have a palpable and pervasive sense of believability so that the audience will be emotionally engaged by the readily perceivable spontaneity of the actors' human response and behavior.
Throughout the 20th century, a vast number of non-musical works for the stage have been "translated" to film. To better understand the concept of "translation" in this context, consider this analogy: ever since the advent of the piano, music that had originally been written for the harpsichord and, to some extent, the organ, required a "translation" in order to be effectively performed on the piano, because the piano made new and vastly different aural and expressive experiences possible. It then became inevitable that there be a "retranslation" of that music whenever it was later played on the instrument for which it was originally written. A retranslation is always permeated, subtly or overtly, with the new and different understanding that has been gained through the expanded scope of experience.
The process of retranslating works for the stage to the medium of the screen and back to the stage has taught us that the actor on stage can have genuine feelings, can respond from his feelings, and can also avoid falling into "semaphoric," hyperbolic over-acting. The reason for this is that all acting, as we have said, whether on stage or film, is about authentic inner response. The power of acting is rooted in presence, in how readily available the actor is to feel his actual emotions in-the-moment and to freely express those emotions through behavior. The fact that there may be a microphone or a camera, a large stage or a small stage, does not alter the well-trained singing-actor's ability to act, any more than the wide variety of pianos played by a pianist, from consoles and uprights to full concert grands, alters the pianist's ability to play.
Very few singing actors now before the opera public, at any level of the profession, meet the standard necessary for even minimally believable emotional communication on stage, let alone the standard required for film or video. Critical to the future success of opera is a clear understanding of the distinction between acting as we have defined it and acting based on various forms of preplanning, because this understanding has direct bearing on the point of view and approach of those teaching acting to opera singers.
We are now hearing the loud and persistent clarion call for the reassessment and revision of operatic acting training.
The time has come for those who teach acting to let go of the old ways of training.
Only when the teachers change their approach to training will the results change. It is time to offer opera singers the opportunity to become respectable actors by offering them the best, most time-efficient and effective acting training and preparation technologies available.
Why concern ourselves with acting, since opera is only about the music anyway?
Published in The New York Opera Newsletter (now called Classical Singer Magazine);
(September, 1995 Vol. 8, No. 9)