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

Saturday, April 09, 2011 - 01:08 PM

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?


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Comments [11]

James Gavin

Fascinating territory you've covered here, Fred. How refreshing to read such scholarly yet entertaining commentary. It's interesting to wonder what we would think today of the acting technique of the most celebrated actors (or singing actors) of a century past. Film exists of some of them, of course, like Bernhardt, and it can leave one scratching one's head (if that one is me!). The same is true of turn-of-the-century opera-singing technique, which demonstrates how far the art has come.

Apr. 17 2011 01:11 PM
Michael Meltzer

One famous actress with operatic training and an early successful career in musical comedy was Groucho Marx' favorite "straight man," Margaret Dumont. There's a terrific Wikipedia article, she accomplished quite a bit.

Apr. 15 2011 07:33 PM
Nancy Wilken from New York

Rex Harrison (as well as Richard Burton) both had sperb acting techniques: Harrison' "talking" a song in My Fair Lady was "marked " as one would have sung it (understand from actor/singers it's sometimes harder to talk a song) and Burton in Camelot certainly could have sung out with that Welsh voice but chose not to & role came out better. Also, can someone tell me the movie that George Sanders sang in, must be in the late 1940's?

Apr. 12 2011 02:13 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane from BOONTON, NJ

Twoiof my voice teachers not only had GREAT voices but were famous for their acting talents. Friedrich Schorr, the legendary "unico" definitive Hans Sachs and Wotan and Alexander Kipnis, the richest voice and most thrilling BORIS, with competion only from Chaliapin, singular as he was. Kipnis was also a major Mozart and Wagner and lieder singer. Hear what he didi witrh the Erlkonig !!! It helps one to comprehend the talent necessary to perform Rossini if one has had a career singing opera.
The great and greater performers of Europe came to teach here, in New York. Stars of the Met in Caruso's day, Frieda Hempel and Margarete Matzenauer, I studied with privately, at their residences.

Apr. 12 2011 09:25 AM
Terry Shames from Berkeley, CA

Wonderful article. Makes me want to go straight to the opera. Re. Callas, I had the great fortune to run across a small event in Florence many years ago, in which select video clips of Callas were shown, and there were several of her costumes on display. The clips they showed were well-selected to emphasize her powerful acting abilities. And you are right, it enhanced my enjoyment of her voice.

Apr. 10 2011 02:29 PM
William V. Madison

Two of my favorite actresses give me the sense that they're singing, even when they're not: their musical approach to language helps to convey meaning and character. Madeline Kahn trained as an opera singer, and approached a script as she would a score; this is one reason, I think, that many of her lines are so quotable (we're singing along with her), and it also explains her expert timing. Geraldine McEwan makes similar use of her voice, notably in the ‘Mapp & Lucia’ TV series, in which her characterization does border on the operatic.

Also -- the singing voice of Emile in ‘South Pacific’ was Giorgio Tozzi, not Tito Gobbi, as an earlier comment suggests.

Apr. 10 2011 06:59 AM
Fred Plotkin

Great comments so far...bravo to my readers!

Apr. 10 2011 01:25 AM
Cat Jagger-Pollon from Los Angeles

In the film, "South Pacific", Gobbi did the singing for the gorgeous Rossano Brazzi.
On the Stage, the great Basso, Ezio Pinza
played and sang the role. Both of them did not over sing as most opera singers do when
singing non-operatic material.

I think the British actors are better at using
their voices as a singer might. There are too
many to mention.

Apr. 10 2011 01:18 AM
Scott Rose from Manhattan

Zoe Caldwell, live on Broadway in Medea, exercised such phenomenal range in each of vocal 1) dynamics 2) nuance 3) emotional expression 4) subtlety of thought and 5) dramatically meaningful drawing of breath that her performance could perhaps be deemed "operatic."

Apr. 10 2011 12:50 AM
Michael Meltzer

To answer the final question, an actress with all the warmth, resonance, projection, variation and nuance of a singer: Meryl Streep.
To name a singer who was a consummate actress, dancer, stage presence of every manner AND had a beautiful voice: Patricia Brooks.

Apr. 10 2011 12:29 AM
The Marschallin from New York

Orson Welles...the voice, the body, the face, the eyes, the talent...recognizable anywhere, any time, in any tiny snippet (even adds for wines or whatever!)

Apr. 09 2011 07:48 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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