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: August 18, 2019

The Seven Cornerstones of great singing-acting in opera: Musicianship, Vocalism, Acting, Language, Dance, Artistry and Professionalism

Expertise in each of these areas individually can create a satisfying experience for an audience member. A moment in which acting, musicianship and dance are suspended in favor of astonishing vocalism can be wonderful. But it does not hold a candle to the moments when all seven areas are operating at full throttle.

What is this thing we call “musicianship”? And can superior musicianship in and of itself be exciting to an audience? If so, what makes it exciting?

Pure pitch occurs when the fundamental vibration of the pitch in question, say A-440, dominates the tone being produced. The nature of vibrato, which is one aspect that makes singing pleasant to the ear, is that it consists of oscillating pitch: the core pitch (A-440) and a secondary pitch, usually about a semi-tone lower. But having a secure sense of pitch not only means a good sense of individual pitch, it means a sense of pitch within an harmonic context. This is because pitch in non-keyboard instruments is not tempered. In other words an A-natural within the tonality of A-minor is slightly different than an A-natural within the tonality of D-Major. That is why ear training is so important.

A consistent heartbeat is a universal, primal experience for humans. As we develop in our most primitive state, in the womb, the mother’s heartbeat is a constant companion, hard-wired to every emotional experience. In music, the regularity of the heartbeat (the tactus) provides security and relaxation to the listener, enabling them to descend into their primal emotional pool. Rhythm in musical terms provides the subdivisions of the heartbeat, a counterpoint to the tactus. It is essential for a musician not to disturb the tactus by rushing or distending the rhythm (which is different than shaping rhythm, as in rubato). Rhythmic silences (rests) are every bit as important as rhythmic sounds. There are also the “heartbeat interrupters”, fermati and G.P., which reset the life of the musical moment. All this is embodied in a good sense of rhythm.

While tempo is primarily the speed of the “heartbeat”, it also has a qualitative component. Allegro not only has a metronomic definition but a qualitative one as well and the interplay between speed and mood is one of the hallmarks of a good sense of tempo.

Understanding the “drama” of dynamics is vital. It goes beyond forte = loud and piano = soft. It has to do with restraint and release. What makes a piano exciting is the potential energy, energy that is restrained. The opposite is true of forte in which the energy is released. Of course, there are various types of piano and forte, for example sforzando, in which sound is used as a momentary aural assault. But the concept of restraint and release remains foundational. Inherent in the skilled use of dynamics are the transitions, such as crescendo and descrescendo.

Staccato, marcato, legato, sostenuto, sforzando, slurs, etc. These markings serve as interpretative guides directly from the composer. But it is not enough to merely execute them, as necessary as that is to good musicianship. The unwritten request from the composer is that the performing artist transform these markings into personal meaning.

Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Expressionism, etc. Understanding and being able to execute the “rules and codes” of the various musical styles is fundamental to good musicianship.

A massive topic, to be sure. But if we were to reduce it to an essence of excellence, it might read something like this: the ability to sing every pitch easily, with the center of the pitch dominating the tone but with the full spectrum of harmonics (ring) present and with a “natural” vibrato; to be able to produce this kind of tone on every pitch in the singer’s range, on every vowel shape, at every dynamic level—including the transitions of crescendo and decrescendo —in any articulation (legato, staccato, etc.) and at any tempo.

Another massive topic. But instead of producing tone, the actor produces believability. In this sense, the essence of acting might be reduced to: the ability to create 100% believability in your character, compelling emotional engagement on the part of the audience. No matter what character, no matter what illusion required, the actor has the technique to create 100% believability and, thereby, to compel emotional engagement in the audience.

The use of text to stimulate emotion through cognition is a vital skill for the singer-actor, even though the musical and vocal expression may seem to dominate. The reason is that ideation can broaden the spectrum of emotion beyond the capabilities of sound waves (music and vocalism). Great diction is essential, but only as a vehicle for comprehension of the idea within the words, between the words and beneath the words. The sub-textual meaning of the words is what influences, even dictates, the expression. So when a mentor says “how beautifully you used the words” or compliments a singer-actor on their good sense of the text, they are really referring to the fact that the artist has discovered the sub-textual meaning and brought that meaning out through the text. We tend to think of foreign language requirements for opera singers in terms of pronunciation first, then vocabulary and grammar second—and certainly these skills are absolutely essential. But in order to convey the all important sub-text, a much deeper level of fluency is required, not only to get to the point where one feels the depth of the language but also to understand the cultural “code” imbedded in a language, which goes well beyond grammar and vocabulary. As daunting a thought as this may seem, only when a singer-actor is fluent in a language can the full expressive range of that language begin to be leveraged. But take heart: there is still a great deal of expressive power you can exercise even if you are not fluent in a foreign language.

I use the term “dance” as a sort of shorthand. What I mean is story-telling with the body. The singer-actor is occasionally called upon to use structured movement in their story telling, i.e. a waltz, a pavanne or the “Charleston”. But they are constantly story-telling with their bodies in terms of body language and the audience is constantly receiving visual information through the physical shapes and movements of the singer-actor that create understanding and trigger emotion.

Artistry is the act of putting all of the skill and craft mentioned in the above categories at the service of expression. Without something to express, all the skill and craft in the world may be impressive, even stunning, but it won’t make the audience fully transcend.

Artistry is the domain beyond technique. When an artist attains the technical ability to express anything clearly, beautifully and easily what is it s/he actually wishes to say?

What are your viewpoints about the great topics of existence: love, death, religion, spirituality, family, compassion, fidelity, freedom, propriety, tolerance, society, capital punishment, freedom, the class system, poverty, privilege, charity, etc.?

To sing, dance and tell stories are natural acts. We do them as children, from a very early age. But to do any of these on command, when we do not feel in the mood—that is very unnatural. That is the domain of the professional.

Chapter Entry: August 11, 2019

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.

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.

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.

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.

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: August 4, 2019
Fach, Type and Career Friction

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.

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
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.



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





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

This series of three short manuals is for the emerging young artist who is eager for techniques that he/she can easily put to effective use and curious about concepts that lie beyond the obvious or explicit which can help make him or her a truly “interesting” artist.

Act One: Concepts is about the “physics” of theater-making, laws and principles which, like gravity, operate under the radar but which have a consistent and massive effect on everything that occurs in performance.

Act Two: Craft focuses on acting technique.

Act Three: Career addresses the artistry and professionalism required to create a career in opera.

This series is atypical of existing books on acting in opera in that it does not espouse a singular “technique”. There are many exercises included, to be sure, but for the most part it lays out concepts and ideas on a broad range of facets for opera and art-making, which I hope the inquisitive young artist will find helpful in knitting together their own technique as a singer-actor.

Its purposes are to fill in information gaps, re-wire existing knowledge and provide a broader context for technique and artistry.

For the beginner, this series can serve as a primer; for the intermediate artist it can function as practical manuals; for advanced singers it can, hopefully, be an informative and enjoyable read; for teachers and stage directors, I believe this series can serve as both a prism for the subject and a resource for the classroom, workshop or rehearsal.

As with effective theater, I strive for brevity, essence and access. It is intentionally written in short chapters, with illustrations as appropriate.

Let the houselights dim…

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