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Abstract and Keywords

Acting and singing have often been considered incompatible activities, but most successful operatic performances depend in part on successful acting. Acting in opera is, however, different from acting in spoken drama. Realistic characterization is often difficult to achieve when acting with music, and often the formal gestures of a more rhetorical representation are more appropriate. A more vivid style of acting was initiated with the bel canto opera early in the nineteenth century, and later verismo opera required acting that brought out the unconscious motivation of characters. Wagner, Stanislavski, and Felsenstein all developed a style of acting that reflected the psychology of the character and encouraged ensemble. Modern operatic performance incorporates a variety of styles, but a combination of realism and minimalism may be most effective on stage. Callas’s performance in Act 2 of Tosca and Nicholas Lehnhoff’s production of Parsifal are analyzed.

Keywords: acting, representation, characterization, realism, gesture, rhetoric, bel canto, verismo, minimalism

Opera and the Absence of Acting

Theater, as Peter Brook has memorably defined it, exists simply when there is a space for one person to walk across and another person to observe this (Brook 1998: 9). Most theatrical performances are more complex than this, but the actor’s presence is theater’s most elemental component and the main conduit through which the audience’s attention is drawn to the stage and fastened there for the duration of the performance. Acting is foundational for all theater. In representational theater, which accounts for the majority of operatic performance seen today, acting entails the embodiment of a character that has an identity different from the actor’s own. In the words of Clive Barker, it incorporates the “transformation of one human being into another…conditioned by circumstances of time, space, and character which are not those of the person undergoing the transformation” (Barker 1989: 110). Acting also involves the conveyance of the emotions of the fictional character to audience members, who respond either by finding those emotions recreated in themselves or by feeling other emotions that may or may not be sympathetic toward the character. The successful actor must possess highly developed mimetic, or imitative, abilities, the power to imagine and externalize the inner life of the character, complete control of physical and vocal skills, and a presence that excites or otherwise moves an audience.

Singing and acting are not practices that have always coexisted happily. Most theorists of operatic performance will agree that highly developed powers of characterization are essential to the successful realization of a role. Emilio de’ Cavalieri, one of the earliest composers of opera, insisted that the singer “should express the words well, so that they may be understood, and accompany them with gestures and movements, not only of the hands but other gestures that are an efficacious aid in moving the affections” (Cavalieri [1600] 1967: n.p.; MacClintock 1979: 183). Giovanni Battista Mancini, a leading singing teacher of the eighteenth century, claimed that “in order to be a perfect actor merely singing is not enough, but the knowledge of reciting and acting well is required too” (p. 443) (Mancini 1774: 165; Barnett 1987: 17); Wagner insisted that his singers’ acting talents be as versatile as their singing, and Verdi urged singers to pay close attention to characterization. Today, many teachers consider that operatic performance can only be effective when the acting capacities of the performer are as fully developed as the singing (Balk 1985: 9). Nevertheless, acting and singing are often felt to be in conflict, as if one can only be practiced at the expense of the other, and when that happens, acting may have to go to the wall. “I do not know if a perfect Singer can at the same time be a perfect actor,” wrote the eighteenth-century singer and teacher Pietro Francesco Tosi. “[…] It being, however, much more difficult to sing well than to act well, the Merit of the first is beyond the second” (Tosi [1723] 1968: 152). Two hundred years later, Konstantin Stanislavski complained that an indifference, even hostility, to acting well had become a fixed attitude in the operatic profession. Most singers, he argued, ignore acting entirely: “not only do they not study it, they treat it with disdain, taking pride in the fact that they are singers and not just actors” (Stanislavski 1961: 330). While Stanislavski’s dictum cannot be taken as applying to all opera singers, many of whom successfully combine acting and singing, it is not at all unusual to feel the absence of such fusion on the operatic stage today. Even the most accomplished singing-actors sense a fundamental incompatibility between acting and singing. “It is almost impossible to sing and really act at the same time,” Natalie Dessay has gone on record as saying. “For me, acting is receiving and singing is giving, and that is why [acting in opera] is so difficult” (Mead 2009: 54).

The specific demands that opera makes on the actor are still relatively unexplored. Extended theoretical and historical discussions of operatic acting as distinct from acting in spoken theater are hard to come by. Evidence of singers’ acting abilities is available anecdotally from histories and biographies and from comments scattered through memoirs and reviews. Recent research includes only one volume that explores the technical relationship between music and gesture in nineteenth-century opera (Smart 2004), another that concentrates systematically on the theatrical aspects of singers’ careers and on their capacity as actors (Rutherford 2006, see especially chapter 7), and an engaging survey of the corporeal aspects of operatic composition and performance, but which only touches on issues of acting tangentially (Hutcheon and Hutcheon 2000). Among contemporary singers, it is Renée Fleming’s autobiography, The Inner Voice, that provides the most insights into the nature of acting in opera (Fleming 2004). Meanwhile, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, which is a font of information on opera as a theatrical practice, devotes a dozen pages to stage lighting, twenty-eight to stage design, twenty-seven to production, and fifteen to singing, but does not even include an entry on acting.

Despite the uneasy relationship between acting and singing, for at least the last one hundred years, discussions of operatic performance have been continuously informed by a sense that each generation considers that acting values have become increasingly important in contrast to the previous generation. With the advent of verismo in the late nineteenth century, a vivid and often sensational realism came to be practiced by some singers. In the 1940s, a growing attention to realistic performance on the operatic stage was attributed to the influence of the movies (Mitchell 1970: 53); and twenty years later, (p. 444) an important teacher and practitioner claimed that in opera “the importance of acting has been overlooked by too many” but now the situation appears to be improving (Volbach 1967: 48). Today, we also pay tribute to the increased attention to acting and the theatrical dimensions of opera, so much so that Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, can claim that “the raising of theatrical standards will be ‘the salvation of opera’” (Isherwood 2007).

There are many reasons for an increased attention to acting in opera over the last one hundred years. This is the period in which the operatic repertoire has been stubbornly narrowed down to a few dozen works, and as the same pieces come to be repeated time and time again, for the sheer sake of variety we wish to see them performed in different interpretations. Stage directors have also become a major presence in operatic production, and they often require singers to be effective actors. More recently, opera has become easily available on DVD and on HD screen transmissions, so that singers are expected physically to complement their roles and to display histrionic powers that are equal to their vocal abilities; and quite simply, opera is much more interesting when it is acted with energy, precision, and imagination than when it is not. Acting classes have recently begun to find their way into the curricula of music academies. Fleming recalls that when she began her training as a singer (in the late 1970s), in major conservatoires such as Eastman and Juilliard, there was no crossover between the drama and music divisions (Fleming 2004: 27), but now it is common for singers to take acting classes, and there are several manuals and textbooks that outline the training of the singer in which singing and acting are fused (Balk 1985). Although one can still see the bad old “park and bark” style of acting being practiced in opera houses, perhaps the days are largely gone when operatic acting, in the ironic words of Ernest Newman (paraphrased by director Frank Corsaro) consisted of a singer raising her arms as “an indication that something’s afoot. If she raises both arms, it is a sign of disaster” (Corsaro 1978: 5).

Acting in Opera and the Spoken Theater

But is the representation of character and communication between actor and audience the same in opera as in spoken drama? Probably not. Actors in spoken drama speak out of silence; the dialogue they engage in more often than not seems to resemble the speech and pace of everyday conversation. Actors can, either individually or collectively, determine the pace of the work in which they are performing; and usually they act against a set or sets that are scaled to the dimensions of the human body and within a theater space where there is a good chance that they can establish fairly intimate contact with most, if not all, members of the audience. Actors in the spoken theater are, by and large, in control of the space in which they perform and the action that they are representing. In contrast, singing actors have to perform under circumstances that most (p. 445) speaking actors would find intolerably restrictive. For a start, they are very rarely surrounded by silence; between them and the audience is the orchestra, an insistent, often clamorous entity, whose very presence requires the singers to produce great volume and resonance in order to be heard above it. The immense physical effort demanded by such singing does not provide an ideal foundation for subtle characterization, as it tends to encourage gestures that are sweeping and generalized rather than highly nuanced. The orchestra and the conductor also control one of the actor’s key resources, the freedom to set the rhythm of the performance. Accuracy in rhythm is critical to the success of any stage production, so a corresponding sense of rhythm is an essential attribute for the actor; in contrast, the opera singer must submit to rhythms generated by the conductor and, in doing so, abandon one of the defining characteristics of artistic freedom for the actor.

Despite the vagaries of historical nomenclature, song and speech are both “legitimate” dramatic languages, but they are perhaps best suited to exploring different aspects of human behavior and may therefore require different modes of acting. As a general rule, speech is most suited to explore the median ranges of human experience, and it can begin to lose efficacy as it moves toward the extremes of experience. Only complex and forceful dramatic verse such as Shakespeare’s, or, in modern drama, a concentrated playing of the subtext can articulate these extremes to any degree of satisfaction. Opera, however, occupies extremes with greater ease than spoken drama does. Its music is the poetry and it tends to have no subtext, as that too is taken up by the music. Music provides access to characters’ emotions in ways that are more direct and overt than in spoken drama, and the size with which these emotions are articulated tends to be enlarged by musical treatment. If such emotional passages are ineptly performed, they can appear to be inflated in contrast to spoken drama. Music provides a highly effective means of exploring and making explicit the secret corners of characters’ psychic lives, so from bel canto works such as La sonnambula or Lucia di Lammermoor through Tristan und Isolde to Pelléas et Mélisande and expressionist operas such as Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, much opera has centered on the expression of romantic and erotic longings, recondite emotions, and passions of extraordinary intensity. However, opera is not only at home in exploring the intimate strata of our emotional lives, it also excels in representing great public events, such as military parades, religious rituals, affairs of state, wars, trials, and riots, and in painting landscapes that can endow characters with heroic stature, as can be demonstrated by the progression of opera from the grand court spectacles of the seventeenth century through nineteenth-century grand opera and beyond. Although the ground that lies between the extremes of intimacy and grandeur—the discursive drama of ideas, the comedy of manners and wit, the domestic drama of everyday life—is not absent from the operatic repertoire (as can be seen, for example, from works such as Le nozze di Figaro or La bohème), this range of human discourse is perhaps more appropriately conveyed through spoken dialogue and through gestures employed in the performance of realistic drama. In fact, realism is not of much utility in conveying either the private or the grand dimensions of operatic action, so something more is required of the singing actor, a manner that is either grander and more elevated than realism, or more (p. 446) remote from it. To make operatic action credible on stage, a formal, sometimes even arcane repertoire of gestures, movements, and postures might be utilized.

The space of the opera stage is quite often larger than that utilized in the spoken theater, and the auditorium of the opera house is so vast that speaking actors would have great difficulty in commanding it. While the speaking actor performs to audiences ranging from a few dozen individuals to at the most a little over a thousand, opera, for economic and institutional reasons, is usually performed in theaters with auditoria that can hold up to four thousand and, if in the open air, several thousand more. The sheer magnitude of operatic performance space only strengthens the need to develop an approach to gesture different from that employed by speaking actors. In opera, as in spoken theater, gestures may reveal the inner life of the characters, but as they are also governed by the music, they tend, on the whole, to unfold more slowly than in spoken drama, their artificiality is more apparent and their duration more attenuated, often to the point of mannerism. In fact, the musical basis of opera encourages the singing actor to develop a style that draws heavily on a gestural mode of acting that is outdated in the spoken theater, associated as it is primarily with the melodrama of the nineteenth century and a style of tragic acting from earlier periods.

The very existence of music in opera can lead to claims that “the quality of acting is usually below the standard acceptable in the spoken theater” (Osnes 2001: 159), a statement that, if true, might be backed up by the argument that, as people do not sing in everyday life, there is no need for them to create a character whose bearing on stage resembles the way humans behave in everyday life. But such an objection betrays a misunderstanding of the nature of dramatic language. All language on stage is artificial, even speech; none of us, for example, in our everyday lives speak in Shakespearean verse, or are as witty as the characters of Wilde and Shaw, or make poetry from a limited vocabulary as Pinter’s or Mamet’s characters do. Music is yet one more overlay of poetry or heightened expression, and the singing actor must find a way to incorporate it into mimetic performance, just as the speaking actor does with the intensified language of poetic drama.

A corollary of the assumption that singing is not a credible dramatic language is that the words that are sung do not matter. Such thinking seems to lie behind Jerry Fodor’s recent claim in the Times Literary Supplement that “most libretti cannot be taken seriously [and] but for the music they couldn’t hope to hold the stage” (Fodor 2007). True enough; no libretti, not even the literary ones by Wagner and Hofmannsthal, can stand as plays in their own right and they were never intended to, but this does not mean that the drama they articulate “cannot be taken seriously.” Most libretti, especially in the modern period, have been adapted from preexisting dramatic or literary material, which has already found audiences or readers for whom it was credible, and there is no reason to assume that an effective adaptation into opera should not be taken seriously as well. Some libretti, such as Myfanwy Piper’s for Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, or, more recently, Meredith Oakes’s for Thomas Ades’s The Tempest, contain stunning poetry, but they have been designed specifically as a basis upon which music can develop its own capacities as a dramatic language, not as dramatic works in themselves. (p. 447) In fact, music, whether or not it carries specific meaning in its non-vocal genres, does carry meaning in opera by its function as the prime media of dramatic action. As such it can realize with unnerving accuracy intimate states of mind, represent with clarity the emotional flux of the character’s lives, and explicitly shape the dramatic action. The opera singer must employ voice and body to interpret, with an equivalent exactitude, the character in a way that makes the action credible and coherent.

All of this indicates that the implied dichotomy between singing and acting, which has been at the basis of much of the suspicion of acting in opera, is a false one, because singing in opera is not separate from acting—it is part of it. The singing voice is as devoted to the representation of character as are facial expressions, bodily gestures and stances, movements, patterns of intonation and stress, and byplay. Not all opera singers might agree with Renée Fleming when she claims that “my primary goal is to make the audience forget that I am singing” (Fleming 2004: 156), or with Natalie Dessay, who is reported as saying that “her highest artistic ambition [is] to embody a character so persuasively, and tell a story so convincingly, that the audience forgets she is singing” (Mead 2009: 54). Indeed, the very conditions of operatic performance make it extremely difficult for us to forget the artistic means, particularly the singing, that the performers use (Lindenberger 1984: 130), but the voice alone, unaided by any mimetic skills in the singer, is challenged to convey the complexity of dramatic character that is germane to the operas that compose the repertoire today.

Acting: From Presentation to Representation

How, historically, has the singing actor risen to the histrionic challenge offered by operatic roles and are the solutions discovered by previous generations of singers viable in the theater today? Since the institution of opera at the turn of the sixteenth into the seventeenth century, theater has changed substantially; the spatial dynamic between actors and audiences, the understanding of dramatic character, and the means of realizing it have gone through several transformations. Until well into the nineteenth century, the auditorium was fully lit and the stage shared conceptual space with the audience. In the course of that century, however, the progressive darkening of the auditorium and the increased proficiency in creating scenic illusion through the construction of realistically detailed or evocative and atmospheric sets, aided by improvements in lighting, meant that by the start of the twentieth century the stage appeared to represent a world separate from that of the audience, one into which spectators peered as if privileged onlookers.

These changes radically influenced the singing actor. From the earliest years, acting in serious or tragic opera was tied closely to the music; in every movement and gesture the actor was expected to complement and never violate the music. Marco da Gagliano, in a preface to his La Dafne (Mantua, 1608), instructs the actor that “his singing and (p. 448) gestures should be full of majesty, more or less in accordance with the loftiness of the music. He must take care that every gesture and step follow the beat of the music and singing” (Gagliano [1608] 1979: 190). The illusion of nobility arising from harmonious unity of the body with the music suited well the elevated milieu of opera seria, and it was sustained until the end of the eighteenth century. Throughout this period, spoken tragedy and opera seria were performed through a complex language of gestures, stances, and poses that had its origins in the rhetorical practices of ancient Rome. It was a refined system in which character was represented in ideal form, and decorum, harmony, and beauty were prime markers of the performer’s excellence, while “nature,” as it was manifested through the emotions, was never felt in any rawness but was always under the controlling influence of “art.” Although the realistic depiction of character was not even contemplated, the system of gesture and movement, available to us today in Barnett’s exhaustively detailed catalogue of gestures drawn from major acting treatises of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries (Barnett 1987), served as a precise code that covered an extensive range of human emotions and motivations and would have been easily understood by audiences. As performers in opera seria were customarily arrayed in heavy drapes, with tonnelets (skirts similar to the tutus of ballet) worn by men and voluminous floor-length skirts by women, and, for the most elevated characters, large waving plumes on their helmets, gestures had to be executed with the utmost care. In opera, the balletic slowness of such acting would have been more pronounced than in spoken tragedy, because, even though recitatives were delivered quite fast, it takes longer to express emotions in music than in words, so poses were sustained to the point of mannerism and transitions were slower. Indeed, François-Joseph Talma, the most accomplished classical actor in Revolutionary France, when he once acted in opera found it exceptionally difficult to fill out the long gaps necessitated by the music (Rutherford 2006: 233–234). The performance of opera buffa, Singspiel, opéra comique, and other mixed forms was more informal and, in contrast to seria, required a greater sense of ensemble; Mozart’s comic operas, for example, with their extended and complex finales, could not be performed without a seemingly spontaneous communication between the actors.

Even though the formal, gestural language of opera seria might be used as a basis for the performance of some opera today, audiences are likely to find it artificial and even preposterous, as it articulates a code whose meaning has been largely lost today. Furthermore, it has about it the aura of rhetoric and therefore works most effectively in a theatrical configuration where direct communication between the actor and the audience is possible. But the architectural and scenic changes that occurred in the course of the nineteenth century gave rise to a theater where that was no longer possible as action, in both opera and spoken drama, tended increasingly, as the century progressed, toward either the graphically realistic or the vague and suggestive. In neither instance would the declarative, unambiguous gestures of seria serve any function. Smart, in her minutely observed study of the relationship between gesture and music in nineteenth-century opera, points out that the few treatises of gesture that did appear at this time, such as Aristippe’s Théorie de l’art du comédien (1826), Carlo Blasis’s The Code of Terpsichore ([1828] 1830), (p. 449) and Edward P. Thwing’s Drill Book on Vocal Culture and Gesture (1876), tended to replicate their eighteenth-century sources (Smart 2004: 16). On stage, however, something different was happening; “the notion of gesture as a language in itself, worthy of dictionary-like exegesis, was gradually replaced by research that signaled the awakening of more modern concerns, conceiving gesture as involuntary physiological response or as unconscious manifestation of psychic depth” (Smart 2004: 17), a process that culminated in naturalism or its operatic equivalent, verismo. This different understanding of the nature of gesture implied a different relationship between the body and the music it expressed, which resulted in an increasing freedom of the singer’s body from the music and the gradual abandonment of any attempt to have gesture move in total harmony with the music.

This new mode of theatricality was already apparent in the performance of Italian opera in the early nineteenth century. The romantic concern with subjectivity found a fertile field in the emotional lives of the desolate heroes and heroines of bel canto opera, and singers, if they were to explore these shadowy areas fully, needed to develop a mimesis that brought psychological turmoil and distress to the surface, in contrast to the seria of previous generations, which had been concerned with projecting ideal and morally admirable images of human experience. In the great bel canto roles, the noble heroes of seria were replaced by lovers whose aberrant desires tore apart the social fabric, and who were driven, either by external coercion or inner turmoil, to catastrophic pathological extremes—in Bellini’s La sonnambula and I puritani to the brink of madness, or in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor beyond madness into murder and suicide. The bel canto period produced the first great prima donnas of the operatic stage, who charted the emotional life of their characters not only through delivery of the vocal line—many of the major female singers sang mezzo-soprano rather than pure soprano and some could cover up to three octaves—but through intonation, accentuation, gesture, facial expression, posture, and byplay, all of which struck audiences as original and unprecedented. As a general rule, until the Romantic period, performers, in opera and spoken theater, had been admired to the degree that they mastered formulas and tropes that had been practiced for generations, so performance had been a repetition of past patterns and the assertion of a generalized and unchanging truth. But with the advent of Romanticism, the individuality of the singer and the originality of the performance caught the attention of audiences, so acting that invested individuality in a role began to earn applause. Some singers, such as Giuditta Pasta (1797–1865), who created three of Bellini’s major roles (Amina in La sonnambula, Norma, and Beatrice di Tenda, as well as Donizetti’s Anna Bolena), and Pauline Viardot (1821–1910) seemed to stay within a framework they had created for the character and sustained an aura of dignity reminiscent of seria, while suggesting emotional turbulence beneath a marmoreal surface; in so doing they served as bridges between older rhetorical and newer mimetic styles of acting. Others, such as Maria Malibran (1808–1836) and Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (1804–1860), who inspired the youthful Wagner, created characters, both from bel canto and earlier operas, that seemed to be in excess of what was written and frequently aroused ferment as to the appropriateness of their histrionic contributions. (p. 450) An unsigned review of Malibran (referred to as Madame de Beriot) as “Fidelio” in The Musical World (May 13, 1836: 140) takes issue with her “tendency to bring every point into […] equally high relief. The unwearied activity of her mind leads her to make even the minutiae of her part over-important […] having made a point, she is determined you shall feel she has made it” (Rutherford 2006: 240).

While a greater attention to psychological detail in operatic acting complemented an increasing realism in stage settings, any tendency toward realism in acting was resisted by increases in the size of the average auditorium and stage, which accommodated the larger audiences produced by the rapidly growing cities of the nineteenth century. In order for singers’ characters to be read, even from the middle of the stalls, broad gestures had to be adopted that were reminiscent less of opera seria, more of the melodrama that prevailed in the popular theater. Smart concludes her study of gesture in nineteenth-century opera with the telling observation that even in the latter part of the century, in Wagner’s music dramas and Verdi’s mature grand operas, in which the conventions of melodrama were challenged and the gestural patterns associated with it were disappearing, a use of gesture that reveals the inner state of the character constantly rubs shoulders with passages in which the composer requires of the singers “a gestural model of music and movement” (Smart 2004: 203). The height of realism in opera composition was reached with Italian verismo and corresponding works in other countries at the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century, which gave rise to a generation of singers who intensified the focus on realistic detail. The most notable of these were the French soprano Emma Calvé (1858–1942), whose intense renderings of roles such as Santuzza, Carmen, and Ophelia in Thomas’s Hamlet owed much to Eleonora Duse, as did the acting of the more restrained Italian soprano Claudio Muzio (1889–1936). Indeed, memories of Duse’s sparing, minimalistic approach to acting may well have been in Puccini’s mind as he crafted the characterization of Mimì in La bohème (Greenwald 2012: 290). In contrast, the flamboyant Scottish soprano Mary Garden (1874–1967) brought a notably vivid and often sexually provocative interpretation to a wide range of roles from the classic and modern repertoire.

Despite the movement toward realism that marked the production of theater over the long nineteenth century, acting practices developed during the eighteenth century hung on with remarkable persistency in the performance of opera, and vestiges can still be traced today. George Bernard Shaw, who entertained the lowest opinion of singers’ histrionic skills, claimed that “operatic actors […] wholly substitute mannerisms of the feeblest sort for acting” and complained that “even the few singers […] who are specially celebrated for their acting, would be celebrated for their deficiency if they were placed in an equally prominent position in drama” (Shaw [1886] 1981: I: 435). In 1915, a manual, Acting in Opera by George Edward Shea, was published that claimed to be based upon current operatic performance practices in Europe; it prescribed specific gestures and movements for specific emotions and situations and evoked the idea of operatic performance as a slowly executed ballet, in which all movement occurs in exact harmony with the music. Movement synchronized to music can still be seen in the opera house, practiced by soloists and choruses alike, but it can so easily appear as overemphatic (p. 451) and mannered that it can serve as the cause of unintentional laughter, the most deadly enemy of tragic pathos the theater has to offer.

Acting and Ensemble

Evidence of the turn toward realism in the performance of opera can be found in the production books—livrets scèniques in France or disposizioni sceniche in Italian—that recorded productions in major opera houses from the late 1820s in France and the 1850s in Italy. Initially, these books gave relatively little indication as to how individual singers should interpret their roles, though the production book for Otello, based on the La Scala production of 1887, indicates three solos where singers should use their imagination in developing their characters (Busch 1988: II: 528, 565–566, 600). Comparing the Otello book to production books from earlier decades, there is abundant evidence that blocking had grown more complex as the nineteenth century progressed, a development that made clear the realistic ambitions of the operatic theater; in particular, precise instructions as to how soloists should move in relation to each other suggest that those responsible for staging the productions were aware of how the play of mind between the principal characters can be expressed through movement on stage. While the prime interest of these books remains scenic, they offer evidence that the concept of operatic performance as an ensemble, in which the impact of the production on the audience is achieved through the combined efforts of principals and chorus rather than through spectacular solo performances, was taking hold in the course of the nineteenth century. It was in the theatrical work of Richard Wagner that this idea was most thoroughly explored and developed.

Wagner’s antipathy toward the way opera was produced in his own time was based in large part on his view that the stage was treated as a platform for a display of the singers’ virtuosity and that audiences were encouraged to pay attention solely to their skills as singers, not as interpreters of dramatic character. From his earliest, quasi-satirical articles on the Parisian opera (see Wagner [1840] 1896: 207) to his extended stage rehearsals with the singers for the first complete production of The Ring at Bayreuth in 1876, Wagner campaigned against mere vocal virtuosity on the stage. In its place he sought an approach to acting that allowed the singer to realize from moment to moment the changing volitional life of the character as expressed in the vocal line and the orchestra. He envisaged a unity of physical gesture, movement, and singing, through which the singers subordinated their talents to the larger purpose of creating a seamless work of art, seamlessness being a defining quality of the Gesamtkunstwerk. This entailed the abandonment of self-conscious theatricality and the creation of an illusion that the production absorbs the audience through its similarity to actual life. On the grounds that “art…ceases to be art from the moment it presents itself as Art to our reflecting consciousness,” Wagner argued that the actor’s “whole essence is reproductiveness whose root we find as the bent to copy with all possible deception the individuality of other (p. 452) persons and their demeanour in the incidents of everyday life” (Wagner [1872] 1896: 214). But Wagner, who proved in rehearsal to be a strikingly resourceful actor himself, could never entirely wean his singers from declarative gestures, so that much of the acting in the first Ring cycle at Bayreuth in 1876 and at the Festspielhaus for several decades after his death was often wooden and overemphatic. The gesture reinforced what had already been stated in the music, and this practice of “double-marking” had the effect of impeding rather than facilitating the flow of the action, thereby creating a self-conscious theatricality rather than avoiding it.

The mode of ensemble acting that would have brought Wagner’s ideal opera performance closer to fulfillment was developed by Stanislavski, the Russian director and actor, best known as the first director of Chekhov’s plays and one of the founders of the Moscow Art Theatre. Opera was, however, of equal if not more interest to Stanislavski than spoken drama was, and during the early revolutionary years he ran a studio in which he attempted to apply principles of naturalistic acting to the performance of opera. He, like Wagner, conceived of performance as a process of sacrifice, in which performers subordinated their individual needs to the interests of the entire performance. Stanislavski considered this surrender to be easier for the opera singer than for the speaking actor, precisely because music usurps the actor’s prerogative to control the rhythm of the action. “Opera,” he claimed, “is much easier than drama. For in opera the rhythm is already there” (Stanislavski 1961: 169). Once the singer has discovered this, in a process identical to that followed by the speaking actor, she creates a “circle of attention” that provides parameters for the role and using the “affective memory” brings the unconscious strata of the character, articulated in the music, to physical realization, ultimately to create a “through-line of action” for the character, which is devoid of any trace of theatrical convention. Stanislavski’s attempts to create productions in which the singer’s role unfolds, as it were, spontaneously with the music were confined primarily to the studio, as the structure of the operatic profession did not allow for the prolonged rehearsals that were necessary for him to develop a seamless ensemble. He drew many of his insights into opera from the acting of Fyodor Chaliapin (1873–1938), whose capacity to sing over both the baritone and bass registers and to transform himself physically into whichever role he played allowed him to craft performances in which characterization was governed entirely by the inner life of the character; therefore at each performance his presentation seemed fresh and urgent.

Stanislavski never fulfilled his ambitions for a permanent ensemble of operatic actors; this was accomplished by the Austrian stage director Walter Felsenstein (1901–1975), who, as director of the Komische Oper in East Berlin from 1947, produced a series of model productions in which all aspects of performance were subordinated to articulating the dramatic action. As with Stanislavski, singers were expected to construct detailed pasts for their characters and to develop them with total disregard for theatrical convention; they should become “unreservedly believable.” But Felsenstein’s most important demand was that his singers should act as if singing were the only way in which they could express themselves. When this happens, the energies of the singer begin to challenge and even incorporate those of the conductor, the orchestra, or the stage director, so the singer (p. 453) becomes the “creative fashioner” of the opera (Fuchs 1991: 15). With Felsenstein, the singing-actor becomes the dominant presence in operatic performance, but only if the singing is subsumed within the acting. Once this happens successfully, and the motivation of the actors emerges clearly, they become the unifying powers within the performance, even to the extent of instilling motivation into the orchestra.

Modern Modes of Operatic Acting

Felsenstein insisted that his own brand of music theater should not be regarded as a template for all opera production. “Advocates of the consistent music theater,” he wrote, “should […] not try to insert themselves where they are neither wanted nor needed” (cited in Fuchs 1991: 14). His comment is a reminder that operatic performance today takes place in several contexts and in several different styles; furthermore, the ideal of the seamlessly staged work of art is not the only one available to us. To take the most obvious example, opera is still performed, often to the great satisfaction of audiences, in the setting of the concert hall. In such an environment, acting even of the sketchiest nature tends to be out of place or even a touch embarrassing. Not all productions attempt to provide as vivid a sense of life within the characters as did Stanislavski’s and Felsenstein’s. The static mode of staging, in the symbolist tradition, implicated in the theories of Adolphe Appia and introduced on the stage by Wieland Wagner, has continued into our own time with directors such as Robert Wilson. They may ask the singers to disclose the character within the role, but they do so in a manner that is slow, hieratic, and rarely disrupted by any upswell of volatility. As the appeal of such productions is usually pictorial, actors are components in a visual composition, rather than interpreters of character. Although few modern directors encourage the adoption of the rhetorical gestures of earlier operatic acting—Wilson is greatly indebted to acting styles of the East Asian theater—symbolist performance has a ritualistic aura that recalls the formality with which opera seria was produced prior to the nineteenth century. The formal nature of operatic gesture also works to the advantage of operas staged in the style of Bertolt Brecht’s Epic theater, which has had a major influence on operatic production since the 1970s. In Brecht the inner life of the character is also a secondary concern; instead, audience attention is directed toward the social polemic, and the aim of the actors will be to demonstrate how their characters’ behavior is prompted mainly by those social forces that are driving the action.

Acting in Opera: Callas

A striking appearance, a vivid acting technique, and the capacity to use the voice to explore the emotional intricacies of character are assets that are becoming essential in (p. 454) opera today, because while audiences may be drawn to operatic performance by the music, they often find themselves held in the opera house by the theater. Whether the last one hundred years have been prodigal of great singing actors is not an easy matter to judge as, until recently, one has had to rely primarily upon written sources that either focus solely on the voice or provide information about the acting that is primarily anecdotal. For example, the performances of Maria Callas may have been documented more copiously than those of any other singer, because in the minds of many opera-goers, she stands as the most consummate actor of opera in the second half of the twentieth century. But exactly why she should have this reputation is uncertain. In David Lowe’s anthology of reviews, essays, and memoirs of Callas—perhaps the most useful source book on the singer—tribute after tribute is made to the quality of her acting. From the start of her career she was praised for her “dramatic instinct [and] the intensity of her acting” (Herzog 1944; Lowe 1986: 17), and in mid-career there cannot have been many who would have disagreed that “as an actress […] [she] must be reckoned among the greats” (Smith 1957; Lowe 1986: 69), but detailed concrete descriptions of her acting are difficult to come by.

In part, her reputation as an actor may have arisen from the drama within her voice, which is apparent from her many recordings. The imperfections of her singing have been exhaustively documented—the flawed vocal technique, the three registers that were never integrated, her frequent inability to stay on pitch, and her shrillness on top—as have its extraordinary beauties—her “mezza voce of opulence and warmth” (Lowe, 36), her astounding legato, the hollow tones of her lower register, and the compassion that her voice could both express and attract. More than one voice can be heard in her singing, as if it itself is the site of drama. Whether an unbroken stream of silvery sound delivered with a flawless vocal technique is inappropriate for a singing-actor depends primarily upon the way in which it is put to use, but Callas’s voice was dramatic through its very composition and the disparity with which its parts were related to each other.

A similar disparity may have been apparent in her acting on stage. In Act II of Tosca, in her celebrated comeback at Covent Garden in 1964, she covered a wide emotional range, the extremes of which led her to adopt strikingly different modes of acting. The visual record of this performance (Callas 2002) indicates that she was a vivid, naturalistic actor. Passages in which she expresses vulnerability and inner distress or in which she struggles with the agents who are manhandling Cavaradossi are executed with moment-to-moment exactitude, and her body and face express the turmoil within Tosca to the minutest detail. There were moments, however, where naturalism was transformed into a mode of acting reminiscent of the ancient gestural tradition. As Callas’s Tosca pleads with Scarpia, she does so with arms and hands outstretched and shoulders flung back in the manner prescribed by handbooks dating back to the earliest eighteenth century. Similarly, moments of fury and pathos are presented grandly in a manner that even has a touch of the archaic about it and arouses associations with the acting of classical tragedy. Whether a consistent characterization lies beneath these different modes is a question for each observer to decide, but each moment is executed with a calculated knowledge of its theatrical impact.

(p. 455) As John Steane has commented, it is absurd to claim that Callas introduced the phenomenon of acting onto the operatic stage (Steane 1996: II: 254). In fact, her popularity as a performer may have resided not in any originality in her acting, but in the opposite; she consummated, with more completeness and flair than previous singers, a mode of acting that was specific to opera, one that could be defined neither by naturalistic attention to detail and motivation, nor by formal gestures, but by the tension between them. Indeed, Callas could move from one to the other without any sense of disruption, as each moment was justified by a level of intensity that was determined by the orchestra and the vocal line. It was not only through the depth of her characterization that she made her impact, but through the deliberation and sparseness of her acting, as with just a single movement of her arm she could make “the audience sit forward, gripped by the stimulus of a dynamic personality in action” (Lowe 1986: 42). Callas was a master of sparse suggestive acting, a minimalism that had been first observed by Wagner almost a century earlier (see also Ardoin [1987] 1998; Seletsky 2004; Cazaux 2010; and Grover-Friedlander 2011).

Acting in Opera: Parsifal

Much expressive acting in opera may reside in the tension between the realistic representation of characters’ emotions and a stylized mode of gesture and movement, which would often be considered excessive in spoken drama. But toward the end of his life, when he was directing the first production of Parsifal at Bayreuth, Wagner clearly modified his ideas of what constituted successful mimesis on the operatic stage. While directing the Ring he had expected full characterization and unmodified realism from his actors, but in directing Parsifal six years later, he found that both realism and declarative rhetorical gestures lacked power; rather, he wrote, “a half-uplifting of one arm, a characteristic movement of the hand, the head, was quite enough to emphasize a somewhat heightened feeling” (Wagner [1882] 1897: 307). At the time this suggestive approach to characterization might have seemed particular to Parsifal, a drama in which realistic aspects of action are reduced and characters address a level of consciousness that lies outside the immediate ambit of everyday experience. Most of the action is unequivocally symbolic, and the extreme slowness with which the score unfolds does not seem to invite the actors to employ the rhythms of physical life. Consequently, for most of its performance history Parsifal has been performed with singers maintaining static poses in stagings that tend, in the two outer acts especially, to rely heavily on a ritual that parallels religious ceremony with reduced attention to representing individual character.

While passivity and stillness may open the minds of audiences to associative aspects of Parsifal’s music, they can mask the multiple strata of the action. A judicious use of realistic acting combined with the sparer mode of acting Wagner had encouraged, however, can both endow that action with greater specificity and give weight and precision to the symbolism. One of the most widely seen productions of Parsifal over the last decade (p. 456) has been the one directed by Nicholas Lehnhoff, first staged at the ENO in 1999, later in San Francisco, Chicago, and Baden-Baden, where it was filmed in 2005 (Wagner/Lehnhoff 2005). This Parsifal, set in a barren, post-apocalyptic world, without a scintilla of nature in Raimund Bauer’s designs, refers more to military than religious ritual in this severe staging. The prime interest of the production, therefore, resides not in the possibility of a divine presence that will save humanity, but in the capacity of human beings to find salvation in themselves. It is therefore through the actuality of the singers’ presence and the specificity of their acting that the conception of the production is realized.

Despite his secular perspective, Lehnhoff’s understanding of the action is neither radical nor idiosyncratic. He probes psychological realms that were soon to be explored by such near contemporaries of Wagner as Ibsen, Freud, and Stanislavski, whose actors were devoted to uncovering the unconscious fears, desires, and impulses that govern human behavior. The key to Lehnhoff’s reading is the anxiety that is introduced in the Prelude at the point where the evocative opening theme returns and loses its haunting aura of boundless distance through worrying repetitions of a single phrase, which lends the Prelude an air of hysteria that confounds any sense of comfort the theme might have initially conveyed. It centers the action on psychic distress within and dysfunction between the characters.

While Lehnhoff’s production incorporates the minimalist approach to acting advocated by Wagner, it is not the only method employed. The Ibsenesque angle on the action requires actors to move precisely from moment to moment. This banishes any sense of the mystical in their relationships and conveys a reductive view of the human condition. In Act I, Gurnemanz (Matti Salminen) is irascible and uncertain of himself, constantly on the verge, it would seem, of despair; Amfortas (Thomas Hampson) lives in self-pity and terror, partly as a result of his wound, but even more out of fear of Titurel, his father; the knights are filled with childish contempt for Kundry (Waltraud Meier), which arises from the unease she causes them by arousing their sexuality; and Parsifal (Christopher Ventris) is nothing more than a figure of thoughtless violence. It is a circumscribed world in which characters are marked not so much by their difference from others as by their common trait—an urge to violence sparked by fear arising from unresolved divisions and inner tensions. This is not a world in which the individual is isolated. Although Wagner’s poem unfolds in a series of soliloquies, Lehnhoff’s staging resists this by insisting on an illusion of constant dialogue. The knights, for example, actively respond to Gurnemanz’s soliloquies as if engaged in an exchange with him. All characters in the opening act are tied to each other by bonds, which are established through an acting that is concrete and psychologically specific and which intensifies the claustrophobia of a society determined by brutality, fear, and ignorance. The cold, resentful suppression, which dominates the action, is broken by startling moments of violence. In the absence of the divine, what little development there is in this act consists primarily in Gurnemanz learning compassion.

Operatic action tends to occupy the extremes rather than the median of human experience and so realistic acting can have limited efficacy. It works best when providing insights into the emotional life described by the music. Once those emotions intensify and drive the action more overtly, realism has reached its limits. The acting in Lehnhoff’s (p. 457) Parsifal moves in two potentially contrary directions. Passages of extreme torment, such as Kundry’s unsuccessful seduction of Parsifal in Act II and Amfortas’s agony during the final scene, are realized through expressionistic acting in which movement is jagged and impulsive, facial expressions reach grotesque contortions, and screams and explosive shouts punctuate the music. At the same time, though the divine is never present, the action consistently works toward a realization of a sublime state, in this instance, through the growth of love between Parsifal and Kundry, who by initially choosing denial, resolve the conflicts that have been impeding them. Upon this they will build, it is implied, a freer society. Such a utopian vision would be betrayed if it were literally depicted on stage. Ultimately it must reside in the audience’s imagination and memory. It is at this point that Wagner’s acting of “half-indication” proves most effective. As Kundry leads Parsifal and a few other knights offstage to this new fertile world, the slow, measured control of their formal progress indicates that they now possess themselves and points the attention of the audience toward the world they are going to create.

The success of Lehnhoff’s Parsifal is dependent upon the actor and on finely observed variations in acting style. The humanization of the action and the avoidance of any trappings of the Romantic theater place intense and unyielding focus on the actor, but in so doing, a multivalent and complex understanding of Wagner’s final opera as a process of human growth is established that resists, quite effectively, the vaguer modes of representation that can often attend this work when it is treated as a drama of religious salvation.

See also: Divas and Divos, Rehearsal Practices, Production Aesthetics and Materials, Regietheater/Director’s Theater


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