Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Getting in on the act

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

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.

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