Out of the Paper Bag

Even at the best of times, this can be an exasperating business. For the most part I enjoy reading reviews, and am glad they and their authors exist. But every now and again a critic’s bad habits make my blood boil. I read a notice recently that stated, as a matter of fact, that a particular singer “was clearly feeling nervous”. I happened to have been chatting to that very singer before and after that very performance, and could tell you, as a matter of fact, that they were cool as the proverbial cucumber. On the other hand, there were times during the show when their character was nervous, and they acted accordingly – with an authenticity that was clearly far too convincing. The idea that the behaviour of a performer on stage reflects the inner life of the character they are portraying, rather than their own, is fundamental to the concept of dramatic art, and is effortlessly grasped even by children. Perhaps the more you know about an artform, the harder it becomes to retain sight of its fundamentals.

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As part of our training as singers, we spend countless hours in classes learning (or on the receiving end of attempts to teach us) the skills of acting, movement and stagecraft. If I could alter anything about these courses, it would be to ensure that these took place from the very beginning of a singer’s training – not always the case – and that they more often than not involved singing while doing these things. Too often acting is taught via spoken dialogue, mimed improvisation and so on, all of which are useful up to a point – that point being the point at which you are required to sing at the same time.

During one of these classes, the instructor asked us to walk across the stage diagonally (i.e. from Upstage Right to Downstage Left) and to trip and fall halfway across (i.e. Centre Stage). For anyone who spent part of their childhood watching, and inevitably imitating, Jacques Tati films, this is like falling off a log (almost literally I suppose), and I executed the prescribed task with ease and aplomb. The instructor’s feedback was, “I’d say that was good except I’m not convinced you did it on purpose because it looked very natural.”

Stanislavsky sums up the essential paradox of stage acting, that every night it must be completely different and exactly the same. The story about Maria Callas stepping on the twenty-seventh stair of the staircase on the third beat of bar 368 time after time (I’m making up the numbers but you know what I mean) demonstrates that spontaneity can come on cue – and if it was good enough for her, there’s no excuse for the rest of us.

The most important distinction I was taught to make, very early on in training as an opera singer, was between realism and truth. The huge obstacle most of us come up against in opera is that it is “unrealistic” – no real human being would say or do these things in real life, let alone sing while they were doing and saying them. Many present-day spoken actors struggle with this when they come to work in theatre, if their training has been largely geared towards TV and film work (where close-miked “realistic” gasping, mumbling and growling have increasingly become the norm). But we are seeking truth, not realism – in fact, by eschewing realism, we unlock the potential to express a more visceral truth, much as poetry can allow language to express purer, profounder truths than prose.

This pursuit of truth is never easy, and there are no shortcuts. There is a great temptation to fall into the trap of what I call ‘semaphoring’ – of employing gestures and mannerisms that audiences (especially frequent opera-goers) recognise as meaning “my character is feeling x at this point”. The audience then slips into their comfortable response of “Ah, the character is feeling x, so I am expected to feel y“. Everybody goes away happy – unless of course they haven’t been to enough opera to understand the semaphore, and then they wonder what all the fuss is about. This is one of the reasons I’m wary of exhortations to opera audiences to “do their homework” beforehand. I’d really much rather people come in with open minds and open hearts, and expect, demand, that those on stage tell the story in the moment, on its own terms, as if for the first time.

This is easier said than done, and is also risky for the performer. As I get older, nerves become less of an issue, but more and more I find myself coming face-to-face with fear: fear that I’ve forgotten how to do my job, fear of unemployment, fear of being crap, fear of being exposed as a talentless fraud. Reaching for the low-risk comfort blanket of doing it the way it’s been done (by me or others) before – of fulfilling expectations rather than challenging and potentially exceeding them – is a constant, artistically fatal, temptation.

Toby Jones, in an acting-for-opera-singers class he gave to my National Opera Studio year at the National Theatre, told us that great acting and awful acting have much in common. If there are 100 actors on stage, 98 of whom are good, one of whom is brilliant and one of whom is terrible, your eye will be drawn to the brilliant and the terrible – and you’d find it very hard to decide which is which. To be brilliant, you must risk being terrible. Consider the many shows which get a mixture of 5- and 1-star reviews. Maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on critics after all.

(Toby Jones undermines his own argument by being brilliant every time I see him in something, but let’s give him time.)

In an age when many stage directors require the “fourth wall” not to be broken (i.e. the actors perform as if the audience were not there, so for instance they might deliver their lines upstage), and composers are writing operatic music which is ever-more-rhythmically-complex (thus requiring the singers to have almost constant sight of the conductor), there is a circle to be squared in an artform where actor and singer are usually the same person. There are several crafty ways around this, and I leave it to the keen-eyed reader to spot them. But to me the legitimate solution is that there is, I firmly believe, a way of acting truthfully on an operatic stage, where the character can be given a physical existence by the performer in a way such that, for example, the performer can look directly at the conductor without destroying the existence of the character. It involves a degree of theatricality – not in the Dame Edna sense, but meaning that there is an imagined truth which is shared between the performers and the audience, fourth wall or not – but it can be done.

I saw a superb example of this a few years back, when Elena Xanthoudakis sang Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore for Scottish Opera. For whatever reason there were a few ensemble problems between pit and stage at that point in the rehearsal process, but they never involved Adina; the reason being that Elena had mapped out an entirely organic-looking but extremely precise line of physical action for her character, which meant that whenever there was a change of tempo or tricky piece of ensemble, she was facing straight out, and so had the conductor directly in her eyeline (and, at least as importantly, she was directly in his). Maybe this was just good fortune – but in my experience, it takes a hell of a lot of preparation to get that lucky.

Opera singers often get asked which is more important, singing or acting? I used to say that they were equally important; that the job is 50% singing, 50% acting. As time has gone on, I realise that it’s truer to say that it’s 100% acting, 100% singing – that they, and everything else involved, should all be part of one, writhing, largely uncontrollable, ultimately (we hope) truthful organism which is a unique performance at a given point in time, gone as soon as it springs to life, never to be repeated. That gloriously exasperating truth is the miracle of opera.

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About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
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