Operatic Acting

by Bruce Schoonmaker

Opera singers perform well until they think about singing.

The primary objective in operatic acting is to convince the audience that you are someone you are not, and to do so while you participate in the operatic convention of singing words that in real life (or spoken drama) would normally be spoken. One needs to act so convincingly that the audience becomes unaware of this convention and engages only in the drama and the beauty of the music.

What are the precepts of this acting? What are the basic rules or procedures involved in acting? It is easier to describe what acting is not. Acting is not pretending, because in acting we bring out what is truly inside us; it is not pretense. At the same time, it is not naturalistic, because the people we portray do not act necessarily as we would act in the same situation. And the natural boundaries of the stage inhibit reality. Actors portray characters, trying to bring them to life, to make them believable for the audience during the tenure of the play. Actors interpret the characters for the audience, bringing the richness of their experience to the portrayal, highlighting aspects of the character's personality and physicality that are important in comprehending the underlying themes and messages of the opera.

Operatic acting means acting while singing in an opera. It means more than that because singing in an opera implies a wholeness of functioning that transforms acting into something different from acting in a spoken drama. The element of music and the physical act of singing demand so much emotional involvement and physical discipline that acting in opera becomes its own art, related to singing and related to acting, yet distinct.

We act all the time.

Each moment in life is fraught with emotional and cognitive choices, and we choose, consciously and unconsciously, how we react to circumstances. We don't think of acting because it is so obvious, because it would be like thinking of chewing while chewing. It is so inherent a function of human life that we lose track of it and become so mired among the trees that we cannot see the forest, the broader perspective.

Ironically the best actors try to stop "acting," and try to speak or sing or move or act without pretense. The best acting is not acting, or non-acting. Zen expresses this concept, "Do nothing." It feels like doing less than acting and doing more than pretending. It feels like being more myself and less my character, but equating my feelings and delivery, my "actions" with the actions of the character I portray. It bespeaks the wealth of human experience that each of us contains, because we can portray anyone and any situation. Within each of us lies universal experience from which we draw the necessary ingredients for characterization. So the character speaks through us, taking over our thoughts and actions; we become the vehicle by which this character finds expression in reality.

I worked with a friend in Cosi Fan Tutte (she played Dorabella) to get her to stop pretending and deliver the lines more sincerely. When she broke through powerfully into playing the moment, she stopped, surprised, and said out-of-character, "But that's not acting at all, that's me!" She shocked herself in realizing the power of what she had done. She was trying less and accomplishing more. She labored less and acted more powerfully.

In developing a character, I first try to create any emotional and psychic involvement, projecting feelings with energy and not worrying about how accurate they are to the character, but loosening the disbelief in my ability to draw from the mythic depths of experience that lie within us. I think of it as allowing myself to be a bad actor, one who is indicating or pretending to be someone else. At some point I begin the intuitive process of making the character me, or making me the character--I'm not sure which--and grounding the greater involvement of altered state into my being and a heightened energy level into my actions. I know this is happening by the fact that I do less and less and select those indicators or feelings and physicalizations that seem most appropriate (with the help of the director, or sometimes despite the director) and I work toward non-acting, toward becoming myself more and more.

The ground rules of operatic acting are that one must sing and act with total commitment. You must commit yourself physically; also, you must commit yourself emotionally and mentally. Opera requires that we transcend "everyday-ness" and create peak moments emotionally, physically, and mentally. The energy required to sing over an orchestra allows us to act more powerfully.

Opera seems strange not because it is less real than everyday life, but because it is more real.

At some point we must surrender ourselves to our roles, feeling the characters take us over and play us, rather than we playing characters. Breathing and breath energy form the meeting place where technique, interpretation, intuition and inspiration meet. We inspire our roles with breath energy. By this means we deliver "inspired" performances consistently. Some people scoff at this idea and claim that we cannot maintain inspiration, but to some degree, by breathing and creating this flow of light, distilled energy, we inspire ourselves constantly, and thereby portray our characters more vividly.

The ideas that I first impose on myself create certain emotional gestures within me that seem appropriate to the dramatic situation. At that point, I try to repeat not the physicalizations or the inflection of language or song, but to repeat the emotional gesture, the impulse. In fact, I try to amplify that impulse and gesture so that what happens externally (outside my mind) becomes fresh and projects to the back of the performing hall. As performers, we are responsible for accuracy and spontaneity in our performing, so that we accurately repeat over and over the intentions of the composer and director while imbuing our performances with spontaneity, emotional and mental freshness, convincing the audience that this is the first time we have sung or spoken the words in this way. By observing the emotional gesture within us, the impulse responsible for actions and for the words that we utter, we form an intuitive technique for repeating spontaneity.

We need to be aware also of the intuitive flow of drama. Drama occurs in tempo, a flow that naturally rises and subsides with the intensity of the action and its direction at the moment. Singers need to learn to recognize and develop this flow and to know that it is distinct from the tempo of the music. Like musical tempo, the dramatic tempo can quicken or slow, and we need to take responsibility for manipulating the audience's sense of time. Sean Connery states,

When we sing art songs, we act, but without props, costumes, scenery or external action. Songs require the same complete sincerity of delivery. One must strive to make the dramatic concept more important than the music, because drama precedes music. Music always evolves from drama. In songs the visible iceberg of drama is smaller (no costumes, sets, often no continuous plot), but the breadth of drama remains the same as in an opera and the audience must sense this hidden mass in the way we perform.

Actors need to learn to interpret correctly their internal cues at the moment of transition from pretense to acting, to naturalness. Almost all of us have negative emotional responses to this moment, otherwise we would exist at this level all the time. Breaking through the barrier into the void of the mythic universe within us leaves a residual negative feeling at the everyday level of existence. I feel open to threat, suddenly vulnerable. Another person's cue may be a feeling of foolishness. We learn as actors to place these cues on our shoulder and to get to know them well, so that when they raise their heads, we say hello and go on about our work, knowing that their uncomfortable presence is a sign that we are doing something right.

Acting resembles martial arts in this aspect. We learn in martial arts to build our strength, energy, and confidence and we learn where we have limited ourselves by our fears. Breaking through those fears allows us to grow: Fear normally serves as a sign that our psyches want to grow and expand. So these feelings that limit expansion become our friends, saying to us, "Yes, you're going in the right direction because you feel this way."

We can only essay to keep removing insincerity from our performance, from our delivery of lines and melody, of musical phrase. Never should the audience be first aware of the beauty of our voices or of our technique; they should always be caught up in the drama or the music or the expression of the internal depths. Only in the background should they notice the beauty and transcendence of what is happening.

Much of what is rich about singing-acting is sharing the stage with others who have the same goal, who are singing-acting while we are. We inspire one another, building energy and becoming stronger because there are two or more gathered in the same creation of beauty. I carry the dramatic focus and pass it to another, who carries it and passes it back to me.

Developing the character during rehearsals

I find myself working from the top down, starting with vocal expression and the eyes and face, then bringing in the arms and torso and finally how the character walks. The emotional analogue to this process reveals itself this way: I try on different surface patterns of emotions with each action and each line, discarding what doesn't work, then deepening the selected emotions and amplifying the internal emotional gesture out of which grows the words and actions. So both the physical characterization and the emotional characterization deepen during the rehearsal process.

The intuitive rhythm of the character

Each character and opera and scene has an intuitive rhythm to it. Each speech or aria has an intuitive rhythm to it based on the drama inherent in it, the intensity of that drama and the quality of it coloring each moment. If the actor portraying the character finds the appropriate rhythm, the characterization quickens and solidifies. Relations have a rhythm to them and it is important for dialogue (duets) to find the quality of rhythm that allows each character individuality while setting the tempo of the relationship.

Precipitating actions

The director and actor must seek the appropriate precipitating action for each action or line in the drama. What provokes the action? What provokes the words at that moment? It can come externally or internally, within the character himself. It can happen immediately before the action, some moments before, or years before. I feel that this process determines the difference between good and excellent productions. Finding the precipitating action deepens the dramatic evolution as much or more than finding the emotional gesture within the character deepens the characterization. Precipitating actions can be passive or active; the quality given them by the director and actors often determines the success of the subsequent action.

The drama must be more important than the music and the singing

Rarely should the audience be more focused on the beauty of the singer's voice than on the situation, conflict, or motivation. Corollary: The singer should always be more focused on the drama than on the music or her singing.

Taking risks

Great actors risk heightening their emotions to the point of looking ludicrous or feeling uncomfortable. Often it is the emotional gesture before the action or speech that must be amplified in order for the freshness of the drama to evoke itself and to become real at-that-moment to both actor and audience. One must feel the greatness of drama internally before acting externally. In Aikido, we learn to attack with the mind first before attacking with the body. This gives psychic power to the physical action and brings a wholeness to the energy involved in the action.

Great actors embrace failure. They learn to try in rehearsal so many ideas and to extend their feelings so far that their characterization fails. Only by extending themselves beyond the balance of consistency-spontaneity do they learn where that balance lies. Barry Stevens said it best in Don't Push the River:

As I pointed out in the previous essay, one must establish for oneself a working atmosphere in developing a character dramatically and musically that allows sufficient room for failures and successes. No road to a successful performance should exist without lots of failures lined along side of it.

Dramatic beats

These are those moments where an internal decision is made or where we change internally before acting. When a director says to an actor, "We need to see the light bulb go on before you do this," she refers to the dramatic beat. For many actors, one of their first goals in studying a score is to find the dramatic beats, to define them, and to figure how to implement them properly.

Opera seems unreal not because it is less real than reality, but because it is more real. It is one peak moment after another, important moments that affect the plot immensely. Our decisions, in portraying characters, are vital ones, not mundane and threadbare. We must take personal risks in achieving characterization. When I direct, I must take personal risks in achieving the necessary level of psychic involvement to bring about true creativity in the unfolding process of drama.

Some brief rules:

The dramatic reason for singing: You must have a good reason for singing. You must convince the audience (and yourself) that you can only express what you are trying to get across by singing. Otherwise you would simply have spoken the words.

Quiet doesn't mean small.

Don't blend. Don't apply choral concepts to singing opera.

Don't breathe passively. Don't breathe chorally. Don't sing chorally. Try to make the breathing a natural part of the characterization. Perhaps this character breathes deeply. Perhaps what she says at a particular moment extends her breathing in the same way that the singer playing her extends her breathing.

Take the momentum from one another as you gain the dramatic focus. Acting on stage is like playing basketball: one player handles the ball, then passes it to another. In the same way, one person dominates the drama (controls the dramatic focus), then passes that focus to another.

Feel the meter in half the time that the conductor is directing. If he conducts in 4, feel the beat in 2.

When you are the primary musical material, sing as if you are the primary musical material.

Always match or exceed the momentum of the conductor.

Mozart: Sing grace notes on the beat. Young singers make the mistake of singing grace notes too fast and unsupported.

In ensembles, do not match the phrasing of other voices. Make the dramatic sense of your melody into your own distinct phrasing.

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