Actors are always told to find the truth or the authenticity of the scene and the characters in them. If that truth is not enough to inspire us as performers or, as my acting tutor at WAAPA says, “make ya skirt twirl up”, then we absolutely have to raise the stakes. The stakes don’t get much higher than opera where every story is life and death.
I was first drawn to the world of opera through a combination of things but mostly it was the transcendence of pure emotion through music; a character experiencing such a high state of emotion that they just have to let it out through music. I think that is why opera has stood the test of time; it’s allows a glimpse into the depths of human experience. I just had to dive in and get a piece of that for myself.
Music and drama have always been the two major loves of my life. I spent my time growing up thinking that they had to be separate or I could only have one or the other so I constantly flitted between the two. It wasn’t until this year, now that I’m well into my third year as a classical voice undergrad, that I accepted that they actually weave together beautifully and always have throughout my performance experience.
Coming into this world from an acting background has given me a particular perspective in my approach to repertoire that has come with its advantages and disadvantages. As an actor the first point of call is always reading and comprehending the script, so I find understanding the text of a piece quite easy. The poem or libretto is quite often my first step when I’m given a new piece because I fully believe that understanding what you’re singing, makes learning the music come naturally. Many composers started with the text when they were composing, so it makes sense to me that singers should do the same when learning.
When a piece has few lines of text and that text is repeated a number of times, I find it frustrating sometimes to keep that text fresh and engaging throughout the piece for both audience and myself. To make it work, I try to apply my work as an actor to really find what the story is behind the text. More than likely there is an obstacle for a character to overcome or double meaning to what they’re singing, that can get really juicy to play as an actor, especially in opera. A character might be saying “Get out” over and over and if the work isn’t done to make that interesting, you and the audience are left asking why they’re just standing there saying the same thing ten thousand times.
Like I said before music and drama go together so well but the biggest challenge I have is finding the balance between storytelling and musicianship. I’m not the strongest musician, so when I have to sing something that requires me to just stand in front of an audience and sing, I often forget the principles of storytelling in favour of making sure I make a good sound. An experience I had lately in performance showed me that sacrificing the storytelling to make a good sound is such a naïve approach. When I let go of the restrictions I had placed on myself, absolutely committing to the story I wanted to tell, the audience were so forgiving of the mistakes I made and in fact, most didn’t even notice them even though they were all singers familiar with the piece of music I was performing. A lot of them also commented on how different I sounded, that I had a richer, fuller voice that they hadn’t heard before.
We as singers of opera, are thinking about so much; diction, alignment, breath, and the damn black dots circling around our head, that we forget to actually be present on stage and give an authentic performance for the audience. We slip into default gestures and the dreaded “Opera Acting” (emphasis on the capital A). Yes audiences want to hear beautiful voices, but they can get that on youtube any time of the day or night. What audiences come to see is people truly listening to each other’s energy and the energy in the space; real people playing characters feeling such intense emotions that they have to sing to express it. Like I learned in my recent performance, when you give it your absolute all to what you’re trying to say, only the soulless will be focusing on what you did wrong afterwards.
Opera acting I believe also comes from a lack of trust in the work. I see it so often in my peers; they feel they have to adjust themselves in certain ways to convey an emotion and it can come across as vague or superficial. They spend so much time on vocal technique that when it comes to acting they want a specific answer or formula that can apply to all of their character work. Sometimes acting technique can make performers too mental in their work and can hinder their connection to the story. Something that actor based singers can do easily that I’ve found music based singers terrified of, is throwing the idea of technique out the window in favour of connecting to how the piece moves you. I myself find it difficult to trust that I have done enough work and let myself be immersed into the story and the music but once we do we move the audience as well as ourselves.
The differences and adjustments I have made from being an actor first then classical singer, have been exciting and new, frustrating and challenging. However these two worlds have one thing in common, the people in it are so committed to their work and are so driven by their passion to tell stories; notes or no notes.
Written by Rachel Doulton