The Dangerous Business of Being an Opera Singer

Friday, October 12, 2012

Alexey Sayapin as Tybalt and Museop Kim as Mercutio Alexey Sayapin and Museop Kim in 'Romeo et Juliette' (Robert Millard/LA Opera)

In the old days, opera singers were expected to just "park and bark," as the static style of performing on stage is referred to within the business. But that’s a thing of the past. Singers now not only have look to like their characters, but also bound across raised platforms, fly through the air and undertake graphic fight scenes. With this growing emphasis on HD-quality realism, what physical skills must an opera singer have to make it today? Is opera becoming too dangerous?

Recent accidents in major opera houses have put a renewed focus on this question. In this podcast, we examine the question of physical risk-taking in opera with three experts:

  • Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post

  • Dale Girard, the director of stage combat studies at the North Carolina School of the Arts and a working stuntman

  • Laura Lee Everett, the artistic services director at Opera America, a service organization representing opera houses in the US

Weigh in: Do you think opera is becoming too dangerous? Or is some physical risk part of a singer's job? Take our poll and leave a comment below.


On the physical risks of being an opera singer:

Anne Midgette: As soon as you get a lot of hydraulic sets that move you get the risk of people’s legs getting caught in them or sets not being in place or people getting stuck up on top of sets...I don't see exactly what visions it serves to have singers that uncomfortable on opening night of a major work that needs a lot of singing.

Dale Girard: [Opera companies] are designing productions that try and compete with the film industry in the expectation of action and movement and storytelling. In that sense, the fights on the operatic stage are becoming more and more dynamic, to match the scope of the music, and the expectations of newer, younger audiences. So that is where some of the challenges are in trying to get singers to actually go through that expectation but still be able to sing at the end of the fight.

Laura Lee Everett: Shows are required to have a fight choreographer who comes in and does stage-safe training, so people are more likely to not injure themselves. Some of the onus is on the singers, more so than it was in the past. They’re going to be asked to do things physically and they need to be aware of how to do these so they don’t hurt themselves.


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Comments [17]

ashley from Denton

I go to hear music, the voice, expression....not watch talented, hard-working people endanger their health (and self-esteem and dignity) turning tricks in order to gain a larger (better?) audience.

Nov. 14 2012 10:02 AM
Leslie from Maine

I grew up at the opera, the old MET. There were stand and sing then, and there were singers who acted. I'll never see a more real Mimi as Licis Albanese (I hope I spelled it correctly)

...and I didn't see it, but wasn't there Marjorie Lawrence as Brunnhilde who jumped onto Grane and leapt into the flames at the end of The Ring?

My last live operas at the MET were in 1966. Until, that is, the HD broadcasts. I waited in great anticipation. I must say I enjoy them, but the sound is not real, and the camera work turns these operas into a sit-com or popular movie genre. I do enjoy the intermissions. But do miss the radio intermissions and wish the HDs could bring something like them to the movies.

I caved, and got a small subscription to the MET in NYC. I am so far away from the stage that I'm in no worry of seeing the make up or the dental work. I see the whole stage. I see the singers conversing and reacting to each other. The sound is devine, not too low, not too loud. I can hear the quietest pianissimo.

I still go to the HD Saturdays, and many times the encores because I cannot get enough of OPERA. I feel it is the coming together of all the arts, and when it's done well.....there's nothing like it.

I do try to get to the operas I care about in NYC first. I don't like the camera telling me where to look. In three or four years, I forget how long these have been, I think 4 of the HD performances have given a good idea of what the whole stage production gave. In the others, I think the HD audience is not being given an idea of the stage performance.

After all this, I don't think that the HD- TV/Movie format has called for more violence or danger. That Faust set was ridiculous, the accident caused by sloppy stage hand work. The MET should be ashamed of itself for its treatment of the singer.

Nov. 13 2012 04:29 PM

I wish the days of "park and bark" would return! The skill a singer who stands and emotes to wrap the audience in the opera's web of emotion is far more challenging than jumping and running around the set. The action takes away from the vocals and we no longer have, in my humble opinion, singers who can even begin to match the voices of the "golden age" of opera, partially due to the opera house mistaken idea that everything must compete with "Hollywood". Opera has, and in my opinion, should always be separate and apart from Hollywood plastic. The classics should always be sung "in the best way" and that cannot be if the singer is required to perform such gymnastics as is seen today.
Opera is, first and foremost, about perfection of singing. If one wants action and singing---go to Broadway!

Nov. 13 2012 04:13 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

For the most part, singing in opera represents (to the extent that fans of TV and HD require that we need something to be "representational" rather than, say, transcendent or outside of the a naturalistic approach to theater, where, of course, people woud not be singing their words!) either speaking, shouting, or internal thought processes. Most of the time, when people in real life are talking to each other, they are not involved in athletic or life-threatening activities. Thus, standing and singing can be no less theatrical than standing and speaking in straight theater.

Re: the Gelb administration and "park and bark": does Mr. Gelb sing? does he (or any of the the regietheater directors who come up with some of the silly business that can be imposed on singers) know what is involved in singing opera? Not that this example is of anything strenuous or dangerous, but in the "red dress and clock" "Traviata", Violetta has to engage in interior decoration (i.e., removing the multicolored drapes that cover the clock and the furniture, to plunge the scene into white blandness while the bored Dr. Death -- more silliness, but never mind --- looks on) while in her confrontation scene with Germont. Why? how does this help to illuminate the emotional exchange of this critical scene?

Anyway, if it's a sword fight, or a knife fight, so be it: you need movement. But putting life and limb in peril just so the TV-fed audience is not bored, and to the detriment of singing as communication, is pointless.

Oct. 17 2012 11:27 AM
Ken Hamilton from Philadelphia

While most performers today (myself included) have had at least four years of conservatory studies, how many of us have had even a basic staged fighting course, I surely haven't and am planning on correcting this ommission at some point. With the changes in our field (some not for the better) maybe there should be an evaluation of the course work for a performance degree to include some fight work.

Oct. 17 2012 08:40 AM

Just the act of being in a theater is exciting. Add to that the nearly miraculous unifying of minds to create the scene - orchestra, performers, stage crew. Then there are us of the audience. Even if you speak fluent Italian/German/name-a-language, it is the emotion of the singing that tells the story. And it takes a high level of energy and concentration to sing at all, let alone in opera.

I have never once thought 'why don't they move around more?' You don't need ballet dancers to sing - they are saying what they need to say without a word. Opera singers don't need to swing from chandaliers - they already are, vocally.

Oct. 16 2012 04:50 PM

The crux of this issue is Art vs. Entertainment.

Art is when the audience has to give something in order to receive something. You must participate in the performance with your own imagination, emotions, and psyche.

Entertainment is when the audience can just sit back and be amused.

We are now a society who often would prefer to be entertained in the theater (movie or live).

Oct. 16 2012 02:58 PM
Yuri from NJ

Concetta Nardone,

For the scene of the entrance to Valhalla in Das Rheingold, the Met used stunt doubles, so singers were not endangered at that moment, though I will admit that set seems hazardous for singers.

Oct. 15 2012 07:24 PM
Igor from NYC

"Sometimes that shape is required to make that sound"- the most stupid thing to say. Only a person who knows nothing about voice can say that. Caruso, Callas, Lanza, Freni, Netrebko!!!! Really? I dont see "that shape".

Oct. 15 2012 02:44 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau county

The stage directors seem to have little regard for the singers. I watched the recent Das Rheingold and during the Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla, I feared that the singers would slide into the pit. Very steep.

Oct. 15 2012 12:29 PM
Arnold Hammerschlag from Brooklyn, NY

The main problem is that people are addicted not only to violence but to entertainment and any kind of movement or distraction whatsoever. Many of the best movies, plays, books and operas suggest what is happening without showing what happens exactly. They let you put together, through your own imagination, what is actually happening and what that means for everyone involved. It is psychologically active and there is an act of discovery.

Although you might argue that literally displaying an act is more realistic, it's actually more realistic that you don't witness it most of the time, but rather have become numb to being immersed in the effects of violence all day long.

Having to display things literally is also a side effect of a culture obsessed with the known and gadgets. Basically, people are not used to going inside and doing the more difficult work of solving problems and challenges at the imaginary level - not imaginary as in make-believe, but imaginary as in using the mind, consciousness.

I believe if that you exert yourself in finding representational or psychological ways to describe events, that an occasional literal gesture will have much more meaning.

To zoom out, you have to ask what is most important for human beings, and to do that you have to ask what they are, essentially, and not just what they have been accustomed to.

Oct. 14 2012 11:46 AM
Morris Glassman from Yorktown Heights, NY

I am a physician who as an avocation sings with the Taconic Opera, a regional company in Westchester County, New York. In Carmen, years ago, one of the knives used in a fight, lost its protective cover. Sadly, no one noticed this. Don Jose's hand was cut and bleeding. Fortunately, I was able to quickly suture the wound, enabling him to conclude the opera.
In Tosca, Cavaradossi pushed me, singing Sciarrone, into a table. My rib was broken. Yes, I did continue. But, it is very difficult to sing with a broken rib. There was no sub available.
These are just two of the accidents that have occurred.
I can attest to the fact that opera is very dangerous to singers.

Oct. 13 2012 08:35 PM
Daniel James Shigo from New York

Park and Bark is a cliche. As a member of The New York City Opera (before it imploded) for 23 years, I can think of precious few times when the director allowed the singer to 'stand and sing.' If anything, singers move too much with directors being terrified of non-movement.

Are sets becoming more dangerous? No. The stage has always been a dangerous place, which is why the by-word of 'safety first' is the mantra of every stage manager I have encountered.

Oct. 13 2012 12:46 PM
Fred Cohn from New York, NY

I'd be wary of accepting that "park and bark" line--a bit of PR promulgated by the present Met administration. Singers throughout the years have offered kinetic, physically engaged performances. Not all of them, of course (just as not all of them do now). Still, the idea that a set or a bit of stage business might actually be injurious to the singers' health--well, that's a new one.

Oct. 12 2012 06:11 PM
Arden Anderson-Broecking from Connecticut

I was appalled by the obvious hazards in the recent "
Faust" set when I first saw it, and my fears were corroborated by Wendy White's fall! (By the way, the MetOpera's behavior toward and treatment of her in regard to this accidnet, which may have cost her her career, is equally appalling.) These smart-aleck directors with their "concepts' care nothing for the well-being of the singers, without whom their precious "conceots" would go right down the tubes! I can't help remembering back in the seventies, when Birgit Nilsson fell during, I believe it was, the dress rehearsal of Goetterdaemmerung and dislocated her shoulder! Her arm protected by a sling, she nevertheless sang the follpwing Friday. (The only time I've hever an ovation during a Wagner performance.)That was an accident. The flimsy construction of that"Faust set was not. Not only was it ludicrous and embarrassing, it turned out to be dangerous.

Oct. 12 2012 05:59 PM


You are not an alto. That is a choral part, not a voice type. As a female, you are either a soprano or a mezzo soprano who has not developed her full range, or you are a contralto, in which case, you're looking in the wrong places to find your parts. True basses are not that common, and you've completely overlooked baritones who have more male roles in general than tenors. I'm not sure who is giving you your opera information, but you may want to find new sources.

Oct. 12 2012 05:55 PM
Sarah E

While I like Opera, being an Alto, I feel that my range gets the short end of the stick. Even in cases where the music is written for an alto, a messo soprano will often get the part. Too often the alto part is the first thing to be written out if time is a factor, and too often, you are told what soprano or tenor is doing a work, but not an alto or bass.

Oct. 12 2012 05:49 PM

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