Why should acting play second fiddle to the voice

La Traviata, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter (Alfredo). Photo Credit: Chris Tribble

La Traviata, Lawrence Olsworth-Peter (Alfredo). Photo Credit: Chris Tribble

Lawrence Olsworth-Peter
June 2015

Many people say opera is 'all about the voice' but I'm not so sure. . .

When I was four years old I broke my leg after some foolhardy playground acrobatics and had to use a wheelchair for several months afterwards. The embarrassment of not being able to play with my friends or move about without a wheelchair did a strange thing to me: it made me introverted and shy.

So my mum decided to book me in for regular drama lessons with a wonderful LAMDA coach, who I'm pleased to say gradually gave me my confidence breakthrough. I discovered I could pour all my creativity into the characters I played and it unleashed a burning ambition to perform on stage. I'm very fortunate to now be doing this for a living on the opera stage.

Why is this relevant? Well I tell you this as a performer who comes at the world of opera very much from an actor's perspective but who also recognises that many in the opera industry do not. 

Opera is widely known as perhaps the most intense art form as it combines so many elements of art and (certainly in the bigger houses) is produced on an impressively gargantuan scale. The golden era of Pavarotti and Sutherland is now long gone and with it the inevitable demise of 'park and bark' performance. Opera directors now expect singers to have at least a basic level of both acting ability and physical fitness if they want a successful stage career - oh, and increasingly Hollywood looks aswell.
The problem for wannabe opera singers tends to stem from their training.

In London's music conservatories acting lessons are often seen as an optional extra and even during these lessons there be a separation between how to translate knowledge of playwrights such as Shakespeare into creating their own character in a professional opera production. At one or two sessions per week students face an uphill struggle to make any progress in this area and one-two-one acting coaching appears to be rare indeed. 

Why, for example, at a great institution such as the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (which is recognised as one of the world's most prestigious training centres for performers) can you only study opera and acting separately but not together? That I think would be joined up thinking but it has yet to come about. Imagine how much could be achieved artistically through the cross-fertilisation of teaching from both these departments. 

Of course preparation is the key to the work of the singing-actor; knowing the music inside out; having researched the piece; having thoughts and intentions for each phrase or bar or word - these things can really help the singing-actor in their journey towards a convincing performance. Yes it requires a lot of preparation and concentration, yes there is the conductor and projection of the voice to think about and yes it will take longer altogether but the performances that stand out in my memory are always those where the performers are really living the moment as the character and the 'inner voice' of character is allowed to shine brightly. When coupled with outstanding, elegant singing this can be truly electrifying.

Such an ideal will always be hard for students who have so much pressure piled onto them at music college to learn an enormous amount of repertoire in a short period of time. In reality the majority of singers nowadays do not make a living from art song (as lovely as that would be) and instead will spend most of their work-life on the opera stage and many coming from the choral tradition will unsurprisingly have no idea how to navigate that.

Those singers who come from a musical theatre background often have more confidence on stage and this can be a great advantage early in their careers. Reacting to another performer can be very possible even when singing opera - it will simply require more focus on the importance of acting from an early age and recognition that one strand is not subordinate to the other. For example I would love to see Meisner's theory taught and implemented in opera scenes as it is such a useful technique to use when you're out in the real world with a multitude of different performers.

Auditions are dangerous places to take risks with character and auditionees can become introverted with worry. Singers are advised against doing (what is perceived as) 'too much' movement or gesture in auditions which is a shame. When I am on a panel I certainly prefer to see someone truly 'living' the character with fire in their belly than someone playing it safe and trying to please, simply concerned with their vocal projection. Yet exploring and finding the 'inner voice' is so freeing as it takes the performer away from concentrating on their vocal technique and toward conveying a living story, which is ultimately what audiences want to see and hear.

Perhaps more auditions in pairs or groups might be a good way forward? This happens often in final rounds of musical theatre auditions and enables the director and producer to see a range of things. Yes it would add to the list of unknown factors for each auditionee but would give them more freedom to perform how they would in a stage setting as opposed to a static one.

It's a good way for the panel to distinguish which voices suit each other too.

The rise of small-scale opera over the last ten years has been a welcome development as it provides an intimate setting in which performers can have more freedom to act without too much concern for filling the space with sound. Often even the conductors are dispensed with, leaving the performers freer to take risks and allowing the fourth wall to be more present in their imagination.

The 'inner voice' can be just as powerful as the external and I would argue that music colleges need to do much more to introduce and mould young singing-actors into performers with real freedom to go out and create extraordinary art.

So yes I suppose it is all about the voice but it depends which one you're talking about.