Opera & Theater – similarities and differences
Back in November, I returned from L.A.Opera where I re-mounted a 1996 production of Verdi's Rigoletto that we originally premiered for San Francisco Opera. Coming back to the Playhouse and the New York theater scene has made me think once again about the two worlds I seem to inhabit-- so-called "straight" theater and opera.
People often ask me: are they different for a director to work on? Reader, they are.
For one thing, in the opera world, all of the singers know every note of music before they show up for the first staging rehearsal. Half–or more than half–of the work has been accomplished before I give them even one acting suggestion. Actors, however, rarely learn lines before they go into rehearsal. They seem to want to stay "open", "a blank page", asking questions along the way, seeing what sorts of people they will be acting with, challenging the director or the playwright, delving, exploring, and waiting. So for the director, the energy is totally different, as you might imagine. Actors begin staging rehearsals carrying scripts and pencils; opera singers leap into the fray, physically. If they've played the role before, they are even more able to give instant physicality and instinct to their acting work.
In opera, staging rehearsals move with the force and flow of music, the rehearsals become literally rhythmic, since unless you ask the pianist and conductor to stop, you are moving through staging ideas with as much fluidity--and speed--as possible. The singing actors are on their feet and energized. I enjoy the muscularity of music; I feel it is an ally. Though I never plan or block actions out in my head before rehearsals, in opera staging I need to be extra-focused and massively prepared before stepping into a room alive with singers, conductors, dazzlingly talented rehearsal pianists and scholarly coaches and prompters--people who have three to five languages at their disposal and decades of experience and training.
Music as a profession and as an art requires almost fascistic discipline--self-discipline that serves the demands of composer and conductor. We are all in service to the composer. To that end, all a singer's energy is focused on one place--his vocal cords, those two tiny vibrating muscles lodged inside the throat. Nothing else matters if those are not functioning and producing perfection--or something as near perfection as is possible for each singer. Acting is secondary--or tertiary, since some movements cannot be achieved due to the physical demands of singing.
"Please, Mark, I need to be still during these measures," is something I hear all the time. And I honor the request. They are making music with their whole beings, and the energy is coming from those little muscles.
Instinct takes second place to music-making--yet this often produces beautifully honest and powerful acting moments. Over the years I have come to trust those moments. Sometimes the music soars out of the singer and completes an acting idea. That is opera director's heaven--those moments when the singing and the acting seem to nurture each other's needs.
Actors, on the other hand, often need little or no training to become absolutely electrifying in a part. Training helps, no question, because ultimately the actor needs to build up a technique and a set of tools that he or she can rely on over many roles and differing plays and rehearsal situations. But it's always bothered me that there is no equivalent in acting to a perfectly-placed high C; or, as we see in dance, a perfect plié or lift. These artistic performance events are judge-able, yet acting remains much more variable. The performance you love is not necessarily loved by your date. But in opera, there's no getting around the appreciation demanded by great music-making.
In the dramatic theater, actors who have worked on their voices and their bodies with discipline usually are far more reliable and their performances more solid and powerful. There is nothing like a bedrock of technique--and both actors and singers work hard to develop highly personalized techniques that serve only their instruments--in that sense, actors and opera singers are somewhat alike.
But in opera, physical acting often starts with simple suggestions of gesture. I try to gauge as quickly as possible the feeling a singer might have for the acting of a role--and then I hope to be inspired by their voice as well as something in their demeanor. The voice does the casting in opera. If you are a tenor, for instance, you play the boyish Rodolfo in La Boheme and then the caddish Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly; the serial-rapist Duke in Rigoletto and the noble, blameless title part in Parsifal (though vocally, that one would be one helluva stretch).