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Opera in Concert: How Much Staging Is Really Enough?

I'm writing this post today because I have seen more and more performances of Opera springing up on all sorts of stages and concert calendars, and often they are being performed 'in concert'.  I'm sure you've all seen concert performances of Opera throughout the years, and therefore I'm going to assume that you know what I'm talking about.  (If that assumption was wrong of me to make, ask me in the comments section of this post and I'll clarify.)  Anyway, I feel as a singer and budding stage director, it's important for me to examine with you the idea of performing Opera in a concert setting, so that we can find ways to make it a tad more interesting for the audience members. 

Although it could happen that most of the people in the audience are there because they just love this opera, we could also go out on a limb and suppose that there might be people in the audience who were dragged to this event by their spouse, or if they're children- by their parents, or perhaps people who just thought, "Hmm...I've got nothing to do this evening, let's see if this might be interesting."  Therefore, for those unwilling or potentially unwitting audience members, we as performers have to offer a little something more than just beautiful singing and stylistically appropriate interpretation.  Thus I give you: acting and stage direction!

Now you're probably thinking, "Wait a second! Concert opera is supposed to have no stage direction- that's why it's being performed in a concert setting! Duh!" To which I say, "Excuse me, but I beg to differ!"  Just because the singers may be performing on the edge of a symphonic stage, positioned on either side of the conductor and in front of the orchestra while sometimes holding scores, or propping them on music stands, that doesn't mean that we must divest ourselves from the dramatic action of the opera itself.  Who ever said it had to be that boring?!

It might be good for us to take this opportunity to address what's been done already in terms of 'Concert Opera' and isn't really working.  There's of course the obvious: no stage direction at all, where all the singers dutifully act as if glued to their music and stand up and sit down as if they were puppets in a marionette theater piece.  Despite what sorts of things you might find amusing as an audience member, even if the portly Tenor's chair makes a loud creaking sound each time he resumes his position in it, whereupon the Conductor gives him a death stare, over time this is surely not the most diverting form of musical enjoyment.

There's also the strange way that I've seen a lot of duets performed in concert opera settings where the Soprano and Baritone are sitting or standing next to one another in the lineup on stage and when they sing their duet together they just sort of gesture to the other person with their eyes or vaguely look as if they're going to move towards the other person but never quite manage to actually do it.  This is basically the ultimate cliffhanger for the audience because the entire time they're singing the duet you're thinking to yourself "Are they going to do something? Is he going to embrace her? Is she going to slap him? What's going to happen?!?" and after a while your brain is about to explode until, at the end, they finally do nothing at all.  How disappointing!

Then there's the possibility that we encounter the Tenor and Soprano in a semi-staged performance of a love duet.  I can hear the "Ooohs and Aaaahhs" in your brain already!  And yes, it will of course be gorgeously sung, although the one thing that it will be lacking is staging that works.  For example, there are two very beautiful and talented singers who perform together quite often in these sorts of operatic duets whom you may know and whom I won't directly mention (This link will though!).  They are obviously top-notch singers; it is clear from listening to their beautiful voices that their technique is flawless, plus they are both very beautiful people from a purely physical perspective.  At first you find yourself maybe thinking things like "Wow! He's gorgeous! And boy, she's beautiful! Sheesh! Seems like their voices are amazing come some people get all the talent?" (or something along those lines....) but, then doesn't your mind start to wonder things like "Why isn't she looking more sincere while she's singing? Why is he only convincingly acting when he's not singing? And why, when they're both singing together, do I find it hard to look at them and believe them? I want more and I want better!" (or, again, something along those lines...)  Maybe it's because they both look as if their heads are going to explode and could care less about the love they're supposedly proclaiming for one another, or maybe it's because we just want more as audience members when the singers are so vocally top-notch, but these sorts of performances somehow still leave us wanting.  Of course, some would argue that you simply can't smile while singing a high and long note, even if that's what the character in this circumstance would otherwise do, had the composer not written such complex music!  And, you would be partially right.  Though, there is more to it.  

Now, I know that to those of you who truly love classical singing, my comments might seem a tad harsh.  And truthfully enough, they are meant to be provocative in order to remind us all of the fact that we can do better as performers!  I certainly think that there are enough performers out there who are really very good, but I don't think that there are enough of them in concert settings who really go the extra mile.  I'm talking about making the experience a fabulous one for the audience members, and offering them something they wouldn't see or hear elsewhere.  After all, it's the job of an artist (even when they may have to take the reigns as stage director in these types of situations) to create art that reaches audiences in ever-changing and exciting new ways. 

I can hear already the commentary in your head saying something like "Well, I would be able to do that if I just had more time to prepare the material better!"  To which I say: "Brilliant!", but seemingly not cost-effective when we live in a world where you often have only minimal time to prepare, and are expected to provide maximum output when you perform.  This line of reasoning leads most singers to the conclusion: "So, then because I'm a singer, I better make sure the singing's the best I can do, and I can maybe not worry so much about the acting- it will come in the moment from the adrenaline."  WRONG!  So many singers have thought those very things and then when it came time to perform, their acting was sub-par or perhaps even non-existent.  I know that it's hard to perform consistently at your best because of the time crunch.  No matter who you are and what your financial situation is, as a singer you've probably been in the situation before where you've either had to work, which took up a lot of the time you'd be normally using to practice, or you simply had other life obligations (e.g. a new baby, having a family in general, moving, caring for elderly parents) and whatever the case may be, I know you simply don't have all the time in the world to practice. 

Therefore, I'd like to make the case that if you use your available practice time for incorporating world-class acting into your most-likely-already-excellent singing (let's face it, many people are simply perfectionists and obsess about silly things which no normal audience member would even notice as being 'wrong') you will have more overall success as a performer.  Think about it: if we've learned anything from the world we live in today, we're a culture where the visual aspect of things is extremely important.  So, no matter how much emphasis you personally place on your singing vs. acting (15% acting, 85% singing, for example), the average audience member will reverse that ratio in his or her mind, and if you aren't doing much of anything besides poorly improvising the acting in the moment, then what do you suppose your chances of being lauded as an excellent performer by the audience might be?  You get the picture.

Ultimately, you will have to make the decision for yourself whether or not to take a chance in testing out my theory and perhaps changing your way of preparing and performing, but I would like to wager that if you do, you won't be disappointed.  In fact, if there are any of you who are reading this and have contrary or similar thoughts or advice on this topic, I'd love to read about it in the comments section below, and I'm sure the other readers would too!



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