THE BLOG
03/03/2008 10:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Voice or The Acting, or Both?

In an article that appeared in The Observer on March 2, 2008, the question was asked: "How come many opera singers are so thin these days?" To this rather curious inquiry, Nicholas Kenyon, CBE, the managing director of The Barbican in London, stated: "One of the positive things that's happened in opera in recent years is that great acting and dramatic commitment have become as important as great singing; the era of sometimes glorious noise accompanied by lumpen, unconvincing drama is over. We're getting away from the cliche that opera is just the fat lady singing, and there's a premium on opera singers who fit their roles well visually as well as vocally -- though of course this can be done by singers large and small."

Let's work through this astonishing statement argument by argument. Sir Nicholas states that "...in recent years is that great acting and dramatic commitment have become as important as great singing." This is palpable nonsense. Although acting and "dramatic commitment" are of unquestioned importance, to assert that they are "as important as great singing" is just flat wrong. This is, after all, opera, where the words are to be sung.

One can rationally argue that the drama is important and that acting ability is exceedingly useful, but to place it on a level equal to vocal production is stretching things beyond the breaking point. Let's take the example of Monserrat Caballe. Possessed of one of the twentieth century's great voices, "Monsey" was no one's idea of an actress. But the moment the woman walked onto the stage and opened her mouth, acting in the sense of physical movement became utterly irrelevant. For while she may for practical purposes have been a singing oak, the voice conveyed all of the passion and intensity the composer put into the music. When a singer "acts with the voice" the way he or she moves on stage pales to insignificance.

It is unquestioned that opera directors in this day and age labor hard and long not to engage singers who have beautiful voices and a near-total inability to act. The great voices of today are required to be look good and move well if they are to earn a living practicing the vocal craft. This is a pity.

Stephanie Blythe is acknowledged as being among the great mezzo-sopranos of our day, a woman who can convey more with the merest vocal modulation and side-long glance than most mezzo-sopranos can after six years of training in the Stanislavsky Method. Opera audiences would rather hear Ms. Blythe and see her somewhat wooden acting than hear Meryl Streep sing. The difficulty, bluntly put, is that the number of singers who are great actors/actresses is now and always has been perilously slim. When you have to opt for acting or voice, acting loses 100 times out of 100 -- or should.

Sir Nicholas continues by noting that "the era of sometimes glorious noise accompanied by lumpen, unconvincing drama is over." Sir Nicholas apparently has not been to the opera lately outside major metropolitan centers. But do note the sneering reference to "glorious noise" when what he should be speaking of is "glorious singing." Woefully deficient acting remains the norm the whole world over, simply because the number of singers who can also act convincingly has never equaled the demand.

He concludes by noting - I think in response to the actual question asked - "We're getting away from the cliche that opera is just the fat lady singing, and there's a premium on opera singers who fit their roles well visually as well as vocally - though of course this can be done by singers large and small."

So if the "fat lady" sings it is a cliché, whereas when the "hot chick" warbles it is Art...although this is not to say that the "fat lady" cannot make Art as well, it is merely more cliché. When Sir Nicholas is done at the Barbican he has a career as a spokesman for the Federal Reserve ahead of him.

Opera has been with us since Monteverdi's day, and for the past 400 years the art form has struggled with the question of whether vocal production or acting ability is prime. The current mania seems to answer the question by saying "Why, both!" But it is the answer to the wrong question. When the opera impresario has a singer who can both act and sing, he or she is hired. The real question is "when confronted with six candidates, three of whom can sing and three of whom can act (and none of whom can do both) which do I hire?" Sir Nicholas would suggest that the answer is "take your pick", which is a lovely way to increase the number of unemployed opera impresarios. When confronted with that choice most impresarios would reject the three actors and concentrate on hiring the best singer, which actually makes sense. If the impresario were to hire the best actor, why not just run a legitimate stage company instead? You'd save a fortune on the orchestra.