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Arts feature

Getting in on the act

Old operatic conventions will no longer do, says Igor Toronyi-Lalic: no more parking and barking

30 September 2009

12:00 AM

30 September 2009

12:00 AM

Old operatic conventions will no longer do, says Igor Toronyi-Lalic: no more parking and barking

Caricatures are often instructive. Those that acquire legs will offer a crystallised version of the truth. The hoary send-up of opera, for example — the lardy singers, the stilted poses, the outstretched arms — is representative of a historic reality. Opera singers did once park and bark. Character was once illustrated through stock gesture and semaphore. The presumed impossibility of mastering both the singing and the acting meant consigning half the art form to the dustbin.

‘How can you act if you have to hold a sustained note for six measures in the middle of an emotional climax, with your eyes glued on the conductor?’ asked Florence Easton, the English soprano, who was the Metropolitan Opera’s darling during the interwar years. Even Verdi recommended that singers didn’t consume themselves too much in characterisation, stating that ‘a single lung is rarely strong enough for acting and singing’.

These are points pretty easily countered today by trips to Glyndebourne, Covent Garden, English National Opera or Welsh National Opera. Most opera singers now do act. And very well. New audiences, attuned to the realism of film and documentaries, demand it; the increasing number of directors roped in from theatre and film require it; and young opera singers — many of whom have had stage coaching while studying — are better prepared for it.

Two of the finest are the British baritones, Simon Keenlyside and Christopher Purves. While Keenlyside has developed a unique intensity (and you can just catch him in searing form in the Royal Opera’s Don Carlo), Purves has made a name for himself as one of the world’s great operatic comedians.


Operatic comedy. Opera buffo. These words are known to send shivers down many spines. While lazy acting in tragic opera can be a bit of a bore, lazy acting in comic opera can be wretched. The emergence of great stage clowns, however, like Purves — with whom even a concert performance can reduce you to tears — is changing even this darkest operatic corner. Purves’s comic turns are studies in meticulousness and intelligence. ‘You have to try to imagine a context in which somebody might sing the things they sing,’ he explains simply but sagely, ‘then it can stop being a caricature and come to life.’

The attention that is now paid to making viable drama that will compete with the best that film and theatre have to offer is the significant change with the past. ‘You just can’t get away with zoning out and singing the aria in the same way that you could have done 20 years ago,’ adds Purves, and few do. There is an emphasis on making a complete work of art, he adds, rather than just relying on someone’s ability ‘to sing beautifully or stand very, very still’.

Purves and Keenlyside both sing very beautifully and rarely stand still. They fling themselves up walls and through sets; Purves as Tonio in ENO’s recent Pagliacci sang while on a Benny Hill-style runaround throughout. Actors are definitely required to try more physically, says Keenlyside. ‘My older colleagues would have said no and that would have been the end of it,’ he says. ‘Now you can’t say, “no”; you have to try.’

Part of this is down to theatre directors like Richard Jones, who have been at the forefront of shifting the interest to psychological and gestural realism, laying down the law. Jones’s direction of Purves in Wozzeck for Welsh National Opera (which has just started a revival run with Purves in Cardiff) was grounded in reality but suffused with endless experimentation. He even referred Purves to a character on Big Brother. ‘He was the closest thing you could get to Wozzeck,’ insists Jones.

It’s a quest for dramatic truth that isn’t shared by all directors. Piero Faggioni’s recent Un Ballo in Maschera at the Metropolitan in New York was ‘excruciating’, says Jones. ‘You got the idea that it didn’t have to be responsible as a dramatic event,’ he sighs. ‘The only way to survive it was to laugh.’

People have been laughing at opera and its tendency to ignore half of its own self since well before the advent of 20th-century documentary realism. In 1838 actor William Macready moaned that a performance of Fidelio at Covent Garden was full of ‘opera-acting — the same unnatural gesticulation and redundant holding up of arms and beating of breasts’.

Manuals encouraged this acting-by-numbers. They offered diagrams describing exactly how one shifted one’s hands and feet in any given emotional moment. A guide by American tenor George Shea from the early-20th century explains that, as you are about to attack an andante aria, you might ‘advance your right foot slightly, throwing your weight thereon, and at the same time gently raising and extending the right hand, palm downward and fingers a bit separated, on a level with the chest’. The reasoning behind stylisation was that you could achieve characterisation with minimal effort, while conserving energy and preserving tone.

From the beginning there were those who objected. Wagner complained bitterly about singers whose dramatic effect ‘is all done by rule’. He saw how powerful an art form opera could be if it didn’t just embrace dramatic concerns but even at times allowed it to trump musical ones. His favourite singer was a woman whom he described as having ‘no voice at all’. Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient just ‘let a true womanly soul stream forth’, wrote Wagner, so that ‘we never thought of either voice or singing’.

During the early-20th century, all the running was with this Wagnerian focus on dramatic depth. It was the age of Feodor Chaliapin, on whom Stanislavski based his new theory of acting, and of Mary Garden, Lina Cavalieri and Geraldine Farrar, all of whom became stars of the silver screen. But, with the growth of the recording industry, and the increased emphasis on vocal beauty, the voice began to be considered enough. Postwar, great singers trumped great actors, and theatrical skills began to raise eyebrows. ‘It usually means that there is not much voice,’ cautioned the great Yugoslav soprano, Zinka Milanov.

Today, the suspicion — and attractiveness of singers for opera houses and directors — is reversed. Great singers have to be great actors. Even the odd bit of exaggeration that many still obviously believe is necessary to convey the story and the foreign tongue is now completely frowned upon, says Keenlyside.

‘Mugging and gumming at the front of the stage to illustrate what it is you are saying because the audience won’t understand it isn’t the way forward,’ insists Keenlyside. When your heroes are people like Richard Burton (as with Keenlyside) or David Mamet (as with Purves) the operatic conventions will no longer do. Instead, one has to change with the greats. Think of the early stage work of Rowan Atkinson, says Keenlyside. ‘Just the movement of his eyes was enough to bring 2,500 people to their knees.’

Less is more — even in big theatres. ‘If you’re careful with your body you can use small details. And if you think that you can’t and therefore think, “It’s too big a house, I must rely on large gestures,” all you will be doing is perpetuating the poor reputation of opera.’

WNO’s Wozzeck tours around the country until 19 November. The final performance of the ROH’s Don Carlo is on 1 October. Keenlyside’s Wozzeck is at the RFH on 8 October.


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