Acting in Opera: A Contemporary Guide for the Inquisitive Young Artist


Acting in Opera: A Contemporary Guide for the Inquisitive Young Artist
by Nicholas Muni

Chapter Entry: July 18, 2014

THE FUNDAMENTAL SEQUENCE
There is a psycho-emotional sequence that occurs within each audience member during any performance that is essential for the artist to understand in order to be fully effective: Believe—Infer—Invest—Feel

This is the sequence an audience member follows on the road to truly being moved by a performance—and to appreciating an artist’s work.

Believe
It is absolutely paramount that the actor compels belief on the part of the audience. The actor must do only those things that will create belief and, conversely, not do anything that will destroy belief. Without success in this first step, the remainder of the fundamental sequence implodes. What is it that we wish the audience to believe? Clearly, we don’t expect them to believe that what they are seeing is real in any literal sense; it is patently false compared to reality. But as part of the “contract” between actors and audience, each audience member engages in the willing suspension of disbelief. In other words, the audience yearns to pretend that what is going on is real. Why would they do this? Because the emotional payoffs are worth the temporary self-delusion.

Infer
When an audience member believes in what is transpiring onstage, they automatically begin to infer, i.e., they begin to invent meaning. They start to create stories in their own minds; they fill in potential meaning of the events, the relationships between the characters, the likely outcomes, etc. This is a process over which the actor has zero control—but they can embrace this phenomenon and allow space for it to occur. It is vital for the actor to understand that unless an audience believes, they are unable to infer. Even a single moment of disbelief can stall or completely halt the process of audience inference.

Invest
Once an audience member believes and begins to infer, they automatically invest. They personalize the experience. This personalizing or investing process is complex, deeply felt and idiosyncratic. It cannot be predicted or controlled by the actor because every human being is, psychologically and emotionally, uniquely wired.

Feel
This is the brass ring for artists, the ultimate goal. Why else do we do what we do if not to evoke and/or provoke strong, meaningful and long-lasting emotional responses? If you agree that this is your goal as an artist, then it is important to master an acting technique that is, if not sure-fire, then at least optimizes your chances for success in this quest.

“Making” an audience feel is an elusive quest, fragile, impossible. The moment you try to make them feel something in particular, you fail. This failure happens for a very natural and deep-seeded reason: it is human nature to become terrified or resentful when we sense another person trying to manipulate us—and we turn off—no one likes being controlled.

But the mechanism called “art” allows for indirect manipulation (control) of the audiences’ emotional state through the willing suspension of disbelief and the sequence of inference and investment that follows.

The only phase in this sequence over which the artist has direct control is compelling belief—or destroying it. Everything beyond that lies completely in the hands of each audience member.

 

Chapter Entry: June 5, 2014
Fach, Type and Career Friction

Fach
When deciding which roles you should be singing—and when—there is the obvious question: can you sing all the notes? But making effective decisions in this regard is a bit more complicated than that. Here are some thoughts to consider.

  • Can you sing all the notes written for the role easily? Can you easily sing (and sustain) a third above the highest note written for the role and, though less critical, a third below the lowest note.
  • What is the tessitura of the role and do you sing very easily in that part of your voice?
  • Can you sing the heaviest and most dramatic segments of the role easily and several times in a row in the studio?
  • Is the majority of the role written in a sostenuto or declamato style and to which of these styles does your voice respond better? Is there a lot of syllabic writing (declamato), especially near either of the principal passagi?
  • Is your voice the type that takes a while to “warm up”? If so, what are the vocal demands in the first act?
  • What is the “flow” of the role? Where are your vocal resting places and how long are they? In terms of the production, do you know if it will be one of those approaches in which you are onstage during times when your character would normally be offstage taking a break? Will the intermissions be taken where they are called for in the score (this is an especially important question for German theater system offers, where there are generally fewer intermissions)?
  • What is the orchestration for the heaviest and longest scene you have in the piece? Look especially for brass and woodwind writing, especially sustained writing.
  • Does a significant amount of the vocal writing lie near or within the lower passagio? If so, do you traverse the lower passagio easily and with good squillo? And what is the orchestration like in those segments?
  • What are the emotional/dramatic demands of the piece for your character. These are a highly underestimated aspect of decision-making. And can wear out a voice very quickly. Is yours the type of voice that responds well to a high-adrenalin, “neurotic” dramatic situation? Further, the heaviest of those types of scenes usually occur in the second half of the role. Is your voice one that tends to get stronger as you sing through a role or does your voice feel freshest and most powerful early on in the evening?
  • What articulation type of voice do you have (Leggiero, Lirico, Lirico-spinto, Spinto, Dramatico) and what type does the role call for?. If it is a lirico-spinto role, does your voice really respond well to spinto articulation? Or is your voice really a lirico, albeit a large or full lirico?

 SIDEBAR: This is an aspect that our industry tends to view simplistically. In other words, we tend to think of leggiero voices as small and dramatico voices as big. While this is often the case, what these labels also address is the balance between airflow and muscular engagement. Leggiero voices, for example, respond best to an onset that is “caressing” with the breath, with a corresponding muscular engagement. A spinto voice type (from the word spingere =to push) responds to a more vigorous amount of muscular engagement relative to the breath flow. A dramatico voice type responds to a declamatory engagement, i.e. even more muscular engagement relative to the breath flow. It could be just as damaging to a dramatico voice to sing a leggiero role than the more common opposite.

A classic case in point is the role of Tosca, which <must> be a lirico-spinto voice type, with a high ability for shifting articulation gears quickly. The test for this role is in Act 2, where smack in the middle of an intense spinto scene, the singer must shift gears to sing “Vissi d’arte”, which is very lyrical in mode. Hearing that aria alone to determine casting for this role is complete folly. When I hear auditions for that role I ask for the most declamatic, dramatic, “angry” aria on their list, followed by “Vissi d’arte”.

Another example is the role of Rodolfo. Usually the audition calls for “che gelida manina”, which is essential to hear, naturally. What we usually don’t hear is the Act 3 scene between Rodolfo and Marcello, where the tenor must have a spinto capability.

  • What size theater (seating capacity) will you be performing the role in?
  • What is the acoustic of that theater (especially important in the German theater system regional houses, where the acoustic of many of the houses is designed to also accommodate drama—which requires a dryer acoustic in order for text to be understood. It is extremely easy to sing the “bloom” off the voice by unintentionally pushing in this type of acoustical environment) and what is the acoustical balance between pit and stage in that theater?
  • Who will be conducting? Is it a conductor known for controlling the dynamics and maintaining transparency of orchestral sound or a conductor who “guns” it with the band? Also, is the conductor known for demanding (or inspiring) full out singing during the entire rehearsal period?
  • Who is the stage director (producer)? Is it a director who demands “high octane” emotional performances or physically strenuous action? Also important, is the director known for demanding (or inspiring) full-out rehearsals (even if you mark vocally)? Is the director known for “through-composed” regie, in which your character is likely to be onstage more than indicated in the score?
  • Will this be a new production? Inevitably, new productions involve much more emotional stress than revivals. Do you, as a person, a performer and a vocalist, respond positively or negatively to emotional stress?
  • What roles will you be rehearsing and performing before and after this engagement? If the roles are substantially different (style, tessitura, articulation type, etc.), is there enough time between the engagements for your voice to acclimate, especially if it involves a very short rehearsal period?
  • What is the career pressure level of the engagement relative to your present career status? Is it a career upward move, lateral move or a downward move? And what is the career and press exposure potential of the engagement?

This list of questions, while not comprehensive, should provide a good guide in deciding upon which roles to sing when, in which theaters and in which situations. It is only really necessary to go through this list when contemplating a role that is clearly a “borderline” case.

Type
The recent developments in opera, such as HD Broadcasts, demand some attention be given to this topic because the visual considerations in casting choices have definitely increased. In short, do you look like your role?

I am not interested in a discussion on whether this increasingly prevalent attitude is good, bad or indifferent. It exists. Period.

What do we do about it?

Humans are biologically wired to react to initial visual signals when viewing another human being. That’s simply a fact that has to do with mating, procreation and survival of the species. Initially, we are drawn to or repelled from someone at first sight. It has nothing to do with what they are like internally. The visual factors that attract or repel vary slightly with each person but basically, science has articulated two key factors: 1) proportion and symmetry and 2) physical conditioning. Here is a link to a fascinating article about this subject in more detail: http://www.livescience.com/7023-rules-attraction-game-love.html

At this point, I will not get into what an artist can do to alter or enhance their physical appearance—that comes later, in a segment on auditioning. Here we will focus on how to compare your own physical type, as it is now and/or will likely be in the future, to stereotypical expectations for casting certain roles in opera.

First, it is important to get a sense of whether or not visual appearance plays a dramaturgical role in the opera. Some are obvious. For example, how important is it for Madama Butterfly to believably appear to be 15 years old? And how important is it that the Pinkerton would believably be admitted into the Navy? How vital is it that Otello believably appear to have dark skin—and the remainder of the cast to have light skin color? How important is it for Falstaff to believably appear to be obese? How important is it for Samson to believably appear to be incomprehensibly strong?

Sometimes the dramaturgical demands are more subtle but no less important. For example, if your Adalgisa is significantly more visually attractive than your Norma, wouldn’t the audience be distracted by the thought “No wonder why Pollione jilted Norma for Adalgisa” and is that thought helpful or harmful to experiencing this opera? If your Mimi is extremely large and healthy looking, the audience may find it ludicrous that she dies of consumption. Is that a problem?

Second, it is important to acknowledge that the more demanding a role is vocally, the less important visual attributes are in the casting process: Turandot, Calaf, Aida, Elektra, Brünnhilde, Tristan, Manrico, etc. The visual attributes are not unimportant, but they may not be as influential in casting decisions.

Third, there are companies that prize vocal/musical prowess as far more than visual appearance and vice-versa. Generally speaking, smaller-sized theaters expose visual appearance more than larger-sized theaters.

Be all that as it may, however, what visual attributes play a role in stereotyping?

Immediate attractiveness, Race (I abhor this but acknowledge the unfortunate reality), Height, Physical proportions, Age appearance, Girth, Health appearance, Occupational appropriateness.

If we were to make a list of roles that have higher stereotype expectations than others, there would be certain ones that rise toward the top of the list: Carmen, Don Giovanni, Mimi, Musetta, Violetta, Falstaff, Aida, Porgy, Bess, Butterfly, Juliette, Don Quichotte, Lennie, Don Jose, Don Pasquale, Canio, Samson, Dalilah, Otello, etc.

Others would be much lower on the list: Ilia, Wozzeck, Lady Macbeth, Hoffman, Ford, Golaud, Elektra, etc.

This is all to say that an objective assessment of your visual attributes, compared to stereotypical expectations of the roles in your vocal fach, taking into account the company/theater for whom you are auditioning should leave you with a list of roles that are viable for you.

Career Friction
After going through the process suggested above, the list of roles that “come out of the strainer”, so to speak, are the roles that will provide the least friction in your quest to obtain professional engagements.

When the following conditions exist, you will have very little career friction:

1)    You can sing the role easily and beautifully
2)    Your visual appearance/attributes match the stereotypical expectations
for the role
3)    Your temperament matches those of the character (Carmen is “fiery”
“impulsive”, etc)
4)    Your career status matches the level of the company for whom you are
auditioning
5)    You have a very good reputation for reliability, preparation, collegiality
and delivering strong performances

If all of the above is in order you will (more or less) glide through your career.

Most on above-mentioned list you have direct control over. But to some extent each of us are have certain qualities “by nature”. One of them is our basic vocal sound, the other is our basic visual attributes. In both of these areas we can make refinements, we grow and change as we mature but the basic qualities will dominate.

It is when we put these basic qualities in combination with roles that require different qualities that we encounter career friction. If the combination is at extreme odds, we hit a career wall.

If you are OK with encountering some failure in exchange for the pleasure you get from doing roles that create career friction for you, then it is fine to proceed in that vein. If not, you may need to do some reflecting and objective analysis.

If struggle and career insecurity are not your thing, best to align your choices with your “natural” attributes.

 

Chapter Entry: May 7, 2014
THE FUNDAMENTAL SEQUENCE
There is a psycho-emotional sequence that occurs within each audience member during any performance that is essential for the artist to understand in order to be fully effective.

Believe—Infer—Invest—Feel

This is the sequence an audience member follows on the road to truly being moved by a performance—and to appreciating an artist’s work.

Believe
This is of prime importance. Without success in this first step, the remainder of the fundamental sequence quickly grinds to a halt. What is it that we wish the audience to believe? Clearly, we don’t expect them to believe that what they are seeing is real in any literal sense. They are aware that it is art, that it is rehearsed, etc. and therefore patently false compared to actual reality. But as part of the “contract” between actors and audience, each audience member engages in a willing suspension of disbelief. In other words, the audience is more than willing to pretend that what is going on is real. Why would they do this? Because the emotional payoffs are worth the temporary self-delusion.

It is absolutely paramount that the actor compels belief on the part of the audience. The actor must do only those things that will create belief and/or, conversely, not do anything that will destroy belief.

Infer
When an audience member believes in what is transpiring before them, they automatically begin to infer, which is to say, they begin to invent meaning. They start to make up stories in their own minds about what is happening. They fill in potential meaning of the events, the relationships between the characters, the likely outcomes, etc. This is a process over which the actor has no control; the best thing an actor (or director) can do is to understand this phenomenon, to embrace it and allow space for it to occur. It is essential for the actor to understand that unless an audience member first believes, they are unable to infer. Even a single moment of disbelief can stall or even completely halt the process of audience inference.

Invest
Once an audience member believes and begins to infer, they automatically invest. They personalize the experience. This personalizing or investing process is complex, deeply rooted and idiosyncratic. It cannot be predicted or controlled by the artist because every human being is uniquely wired, psychologically and emotionally speaking.

Feel
This is the brass ring for artists, the ultimate goal. Why else do we do what we do if not to evoke and/or provoke strong, meaningful and long-lasting emotional responses to our work? If you agree that this is your goal as an artist, then it is important to master an acting technique that is, if not sure-fire, then at least optimizes your chances for success in this quest.

“Making” an audience feel is such an ephemeral quest, so fragile, so impossible to predict that the moment you try to make them feel something in particular, you fail. This failure happens for a very natural and deep-seeded reason: we become terrified or resentful when we sense another person trying to manipulate us—and we turn off—no one likes being controlled.

But the mechanism called “art” allows for indirect manipulation (control) of the audiences’ emotional state through the willing suspension of disbelief and the sequence of inference and investment that follows.

The only phase in this sequence over which the artist has direct control is compelling belief—or destroying it. Everything beyond that lies completely in the hands of each audience member.

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National Opera Association Conference
New York City
January 11, 2014

Click to view “Audition Essentials”

Nic presented a session on January 11, 2014
Click on the adjacent image to download the PowerPoint presentation

 

 

 

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Acting in Opera: A Contemporary Guide for the Inquisitive Young Artist
by Nicholas Muni

INTRODUCTION

This book is for the emerging young artist in opera, who is serious about the pursuit of singing acting and who is hungry for techniques he or she can easily and immediately put to effective use. Its purposes are to fill in information gaps, re-wire existing knowledge and provide a broader context for technique and artistry.

It is also for the inquisitive young artist who senses there are concepts that lie beyond the obvious or explicit which can help make him or her a truly “interesting” artist.

For the beginner, this book can serve as a primer; for the intermediate artist it can be a practical manual; for advanced singers it can be an informative and, I hope, an enjoyable read.

For teachers and stage directors, I believe it can serve as both a prism for the subject and a resource for the classroom, workshop or rehearsal.

Like effective theater, the hallmarks of this book are brevity, essence and access. Because people process information in different ways, this guide uses text, graphic illustration and video to convey its points. The text is written in short chapters and bytes, with illustrations as appropriate and a glossary to aide in comprehension and synthesis. Accompanying the book will be brief video tutorials (available on this website) blending explanation and actual teaching episodes, which will help bring these concepts fully to life.

Acting in Opera: A Contemporary Guide for the Inquisitive Young Artist is written in two “acts” with a Prelude, an Epilogue, an Intermission Feature…and Reprises from time to time. The Prelude provides context and features short essays on key topics. Act One is about the “physics” of Theater-making, laws and principles which, like gravity, operate under the radar but which have a consistent, massive effect on everything that occurs in performance.

Act Two focuses on training, from soup to nuts. The Epilogue wraps up the journey with an exhilarating, sobering look at our art form as practiced in America. Only the brave of heart dare read it.

Let the houselights dim…

© 2013 Nic Muni | Stage Director | Artistic Direction | Teaching | Dramaturgy | Design | Site by RC