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Susanne Mentzer

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Opera Up Close and Personal... or Not

Posted: 09/18/11 08:24 PM ET

Opera has become "up close and personal" after remaining something to behold from a distance for much of its existence. Today's audience can view opera broadcasts and theatrical events in their home or at the cinema. They can see the spit flying out of our mouths and the perspiration running down our cheeks. Our uvulas and dental work are on display for all to see. The seamstresses have replaced Velcro with period-specific fastenings. We move closer together to fit into a shot, all without audiences ever noticing the cameras.

Few people under the age of fifty realize that televised productions actually followed quickly on the heels of the creation of television. A few years ago I was invited to view an airing of Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites at the Museum for Radio and Television in New York City. It was a broadcast from NBC Opera Theater 1957. The network produced a series of full-scale operas broadcast live to American audiences. I went because an early supporter of mine, the tenor David Lloyd, was one of the singers in the original film. I imagined the work might be dated or the acting poor. My hopes were not high. I also felt I was of a different generation -- the singer who also acts -- or so I was told.

The low hopes proved unwarranted. At the museum I saw the most amazing performances filmed in black and white in an incredibly intimate studio setting -- live at the time -- complete with extreme close-ups, The acting was riveting, the singing was impressive. During filming, the singers were in an entirely different studio than that of the NBC Symphony. The orchestra's playing was piped into the singers' studio, but the singers had no monitor on which to see the conductor, Peter Herman Adler. The director was Kirk Browning, who later directed Live from Lincoln Center broadcasts. Live broadcasting at that time left no room for errors in cues or timing. There was no security of a delayed broadcast. It is hard to transfer the sound of a live operatic instrument into a small box with lame speakers, but it was pretty successful.

This particular broadcast was from the heyday of live opera on TV, the target medium of some works by the late Gian Carlo Menotti. The endearing Amahl and the Night Visitors was written specifically for TV and premiered in 1951. An estimated five million people watched. Remember the name Anna Maria Alberghetti? I do. My elementary music teacher spoke of her. She was an overnight star in the cinematic release of Menotti's The Medium entered at Cannes Film Festival in 1952. In a sense Mr. Menotti was way before his time.

Did I mention the acting? It is such a myth that opera singers were/are non-actors. There may have been a few who were perhaps stiff or uncomfortable with their bodies, or who resorted to stock gestures. I find the more I view old broadcasts I see fire in their eyes, emotions on their sleeves, blood and guts on the stage. I have seen people give 150 percent, pouring out their souls into the role and to the audience. Today's impresarios imply that good acting in opera never existed until recently. I suppose this is an attempt to keep building an audience. The fact is, after being at it for 30 years now, I am hard-pressed to view any of my colleagues as a poor actor.

Traditionally, opera for most intents and purposes is an art form meant to be seen from a distance. It is the sum of its parts. Hi-def cinematic broadcasts, internet and TV airings are wonderful for the public to get a close up view of the performers. They are also an affordable ways to bring in an audience and popularize the art. That said, the fact remains that the dramatic concept, movement, chorus, scenery, makeup, costume design, and sound should first and foremost be directed toward the audience in the auditorium. I learned early on not to question the costume designer's choices of colors or volume of cloth as he or she had a larger picture in mind and I was only a small piece. There was no way for me to tell in a small fitting room what I might look like on the big stage.

Perhaps operatic acting got a bum rap because in a 2500-seat theater the gestures have to be a bit larger than life to be seen. It could also be the lack of movement that is sometimes necessary in order to let the body be the conduit for the sound, allowing the sound to have the emotional and dramatic impact. In the early 20thc. the legendary Enrique (not David) Caruso and Luisa (not chicken) Tetrazzini wrote of gestures that seem to be from another time -- hand over heart, arm in air, etc. Contextually that was also a time when, for the most part, the scenery consisted of painted drops and the singers wore their own costumes and wigs, no matter what anyone else in the production wore.

As a professor in the business of nurturing young singers, I am sure to emphasize acting among the many other skills they need. The difference from straight theater is that our timing is dictated by the music, whereas in theater one could conceivably take as much time as needed to deliver a line. The mood of the music is also a determining factor. A singer must decide whether to go with it or maybe do the more interesting option of emoting against what the music is implying. We do consider the libretto, alliteration, rhyme scheme, and the inner life of a character as any actor would. Like all acting there is a technique to action and reaction.

Singers have the added challenge of performing in a foreign language, the most frequented tongues being Italian, French and German. We may be asked to add a dialect or even Russian, Czech, Polish, Spanish, and any number of other languages to our skills. We are trained to understand not only what we are saying, but what everyone else is so that we give justice to the drama. The addition of super titles to the opera house has been a boon to the immediate enjoyment of a performance rather than reading up on the gist of the story before or after the evening.

The composers who were good dramatic composers made the acting choices easy. Most contemporary composers accentuate the drama so well. Case in point Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking based on Sister Helen Prejean's book by the same name. I often tell opera novices to look at the great story line and not to immediately be thrown by the operatic sound if it is new to them. For many people it is like a new language, which of course, is what music really is.

Although there is no replacement for live performance, especially when it come to the non-amplified sound, I encourage audiences to explore both the large and small options. We are fortunate to have access to cinematic broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, some European companies, and yes, we have YouTube and podcasts. As time goes on it will be interesting to see how the art form changes to adapt to the technological innovations and public expectations. Will live audiences one day become obsolete?

 

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