Master Class: When Opera Singers Act (But Don’t Sing)

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Most opera newcomers I meet seem to think that good acting on the opera stage began they day they started attending opera, except perhaps for the long-gone Maria Callas (1923-1977), whom most people know from the riveting snippet of her in the second act of the 1964 Tosca at London’s Royal Opera at Covent Garden. She shared the stage with Tito Gobbi (1913-1984), every bit her equal as a singer and actor. I had the great fortune to study opera production and direction with Gobbi in the 1970s. Neither he nor Callas was born with the most beautiful of voices, but they had great intelligence combined with spontaneity (these two things don’t combine nearly often enough in opera or anywhere else).

They also had a keen sense of not only the meaning of the words but also the sound of the words, so that they were able to transmit dramatic messages on several levels. Both also acted with their voices, something not all singers seem to do now. Two who do are soprano Violeta Urmana and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato. Urmana is now performing Tosca at the Met while DiDonato is in Le Comte Ory. They will be Ariadne and the Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met on May 7 matinee (radio broadcast), May 10 and 13. This is a great opportunity for listeners and viewers to learn how much theatrical meaning can be expressed through voice and words, much as we might expect from actors such as Vanessa Redgrave, Meryl Streep, Christopher Plummer and Kevin Kline. Or, for that matter, John Leguizamo. By contrast, I think that Judi Dench does a great deal with words but not much with her voice, which has a petulant sameness only occasionally softened by a coquettish purr.

Tito Gobbi sang in opera until 1979 but also acted in Italian films in which he did not necessarily play an opera singer. Some of his opera movies from the 1940s hold up very well because he acted with enough dimension to fully play a role but was not so big that he seemed “operatic,” a term that has been abused. If you are in opera, be operatic, say I.

In this very old video from the 1940s, Gobbi is on a very small stage at the conclusion of Act Two of Verdi’s Rigoletto. His daughter Gilda has been abducted and seduced by the Duke of Mantua, Rigoletto’s boss. He is angry and wants revenge (vendetta) while Gilda tries to prevent him from doing something rash. She loves her father but also has a teenager’s crush on the Duke even though he probably raped her (that is left slightly vague in the text).

Rigoletto is a hunchback and a jester in the Renaissance court of the Duke. As you watch and listen, pay attention to Gobbi’s physicalization of the role but also his facial expressions, which are playing to a live audience. They seem big, but Rigoletto is beside himself with anger at his boss for what he has done, at Gilda for the consequences of her naiveté and at himself for his failure to protect his daughter. All of this is on his face and in his voice. You do not need to speak Italian to receive this message.

Gobbi was most famous for his Italian repertory but was a great Wozzeck at a time when Italian artists seldom did German-language roles, especially ones whose expressionistic style would seem to run counter to Italian characters. But both styles called on the same requirements of musicianship, vocal acting as well as sensitivity to the sound and meaning of words, plus spontaneity and immediacy...a lot to ask for from any actor or singer! Gobbi also understood make-up, gesture, the way the orchestration narrates the words and actions of a character, and he could dig deep into a character without losing himself in it. He was, to the audience, always the great Tito Gobbi but also became the roles he played.

This brings to mind the oft-told story of Maria Callas rehearsing the role of the simple peasant girl Amina in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Callas’s director was the great Luchino Visconti, whose glorious films from Ossessione through Bellissima and Senso to Il Gattopardo showed a sensitivity to the psychological underpinnings of dramatic scenes as well as design. Visconti created numerous opera productions in the 1950s in Milan that were showcases for Callas’s gifts. He was an outstanding director but he too was often dazzled by Callas’s diva/prima donna aura. When he directed her as Amina, he told her to wear a lot of diamonds and other jewels. “But Luchino,” said Callas. “Amina is an orphan girl in the alps living with a poor family. She would not have such jewelry.” “Yes,” he said, “but you are Maria Callas playing a poor peasant girl.”

For Visconti, the great Callas had to appear as herself first, then the character, while Callas thought more as Gobbi did that the performer had to become the character as much as possible. At her best, often with Gobbi, she achieved that.
My discussion to this point is a prelude to a movie now in release called “Certified Copy” by the great Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami (born 1940). Most of his films are in Farsi and set in Iran. This one is in French, English and Italian and stars Juliette Binoche (who won the Cannes Film Festival award for her performance) and the British baritone William Shimell. While some opera singers have played opera singers in movies (among them Mario Lanza, Luciano Pavarotti and Anna Netrebko), Shimell plays a man who might not even know much about opera.
His character, James, is a British author whose new book is called “Certified Copy.” He arrives in Tuscany to give a talk about his belief that describing authenticity in art is complicated because a copy (an imitation) could also be a work of art. In other words, every reproduction is also an original. One could expand this concept from inanimate painting and sculptures to full performances by actors, singers and dancers. Is the performance a copy or an interpretation? 
Juliet Binoche plays a French antiques dealer called Elle (“she” in French) who is surrounded by works that may be copies. She questions the notion of what is original, what is real, what is truly felt and believed. The two characters spend a long day together, talking, arguing, eating, seeming to comprehend but not quite.
Shimell gives a remarkable performance, more so because Juliette Binoche is at the top of her form in hers. I would say that she is the “operatic” one with acting that might call to mind the larger size of what we sometimes see on the opera stage. In contrast, Shimell is economical and concise but also very much present. His role of an attractive if moody aesthete in his late 50s might have been played by Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich or even Ben Kingsley, all of whom would bring a creepy sang-froid to the character.
In thinking about his performance after (I try not to analyze when attending films, operas, theater and concerts), I decided that Shimell may well have drawn from certain baritone roles in forming his portrayal. Certainly there is Eugene Onegin, who is both cultivated but aloof and uses these traits to avoid making a real human connection. There is Don Alfonso, the world-weary cynic in Cosí fan tutte that Shimell played at the Met last November. James also has the sense of entitlement of the Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro as well as rare flickers of the kind of heart-sickness we see in La Bohéme’s Marcello.
Shimell also brings a physical stillness to the performance that we used to see more often in opera and would be welcome in a lot of the hyperkinetic stagings I have seen lately. Movement and gesture should have meaning, in film or onstage. Shimell asks us to focus on his words, his voice, his face. He uses a much narrower vocal range than Binoche even though, when singing, he could cover a much broader spectrum than she.
I don’t know if every opera singer would make a great film actor, just as most film actors could never sing opera. Apart from the vocal requirements, a film ultimately is the product of a director while an opera (despite having scenery, lighting, costumes, and stage direction) is ultimately the work of the musicians you hear on the night you attend.
An upcoming post will explore what happens when actors play opera singers, which is a whole other thing. In the meantime, watch some of Maria Callas’s acting in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, Medea, which is not to be confused with the title role she played in Cherubini’s opera based on the same character:

What stage and film actors do you consider “operatic?" Which of them uses their voice as a singer might?