After my last blog post about being an opera singer ended up being surprisingly controversial (there have been articles about gay marriage and abortion that have inspired far fewer inflammatory comments), I thought I would follow it up with something a bit lighter and more entertaining. Specifically: How weird it is to kiss someone while you're in the middle of singing an opera.
Actors have love scenes all the time -- they get naked and pretend to hump each other in movies and onstage, and we don't really think much of it. And maybe, if you've seen a love scene on the operatic stage, you haven't really thought much of it either. But I'm here to lift the velvet curtain on the very unsexy experience of kissing someone after you've just sung for a half an hour and the inside of your mouth is as dry and smelly as a dirty gym sock left in your hamper for two weeks.
The main difference between straight theater and opera kissing is both timing and rehearsal methods. Because opera is all sung, a lot of the action is slowed down -- it sometimes takes an entire five page aria to communicate a couple of sentences. This allows for a real depth of emotion on the part of the singer, and a lot of nuances of expression, but it also poses a challenge when trying to perform an action in "real time." Often, you have to make out with your colleague during a specific piece of music -- so for a specific length of time -- instead of just kissing for however long seems right based on the the intensity of the moment. This is one the challenges that opera singers face -- how to make an action last a specific amount of time to be in synch with the music, but still appear completely natural. I think we're pretty good at it for the most part -- it's one of those skills you acquire after performing in a few operas and getting a feel for the timing of things. However love scenes pose their own set of challenges.
The first challenge is that the mere existence of the music changes the way we rehearse. Unlike actors who have table reads, and who rarely even memorize their lines until they have worked extensively with their directors, we have to arrive at the first rehearsal completely memorized and ready to get up on our feet and start working out the staging. I have had some experiences in Europe where there was more time for experimentation, but in the U.S., budgets are such that we have to stage the entire opera in about two weeks. So instead of experimenting with various love scene ideas, the director usually says, "And here, you kiss," and it's up to us to figure it out.
So because we simply don't have hours to spend working out intricacies of emotion before we dive in, and because the music dictates much of the expression without the need for over explanation, you may suddenly find yourself sharing an extremely intimate experience with a virtual stranger. Sometimes the kissing comes on the very first day of rehearsal, only a few hours after you have first shaken hands with your colleagues. And then you have to decide -- do we actually start kissing, right here, right now in this fluorescently lit rehearsal room, just hours after saying "How do you do?" or do we just fake it until opening night?
I always prefer to get the kissing out of the way right away so that the awkwardness dissolves by opening night. Plus, once you get to the stage and you have nerves and dry mouth and sweat, it's better to at least be somewhat used to pressing your lips together for a few minutes than to be surprised by the fact that your tenor is actually an open mouthed wet kisser, or that your soprano is a closed lip face presser. I would rather have that information before I'm about to sing my aria for 2,500 people for the first time.
One thing I noticed myself doing that made me laugh after I realized I was doing it, was that when the scene ended in a kiss and was followed by a blackout, I would always pat the guy I was kissing on the back as soon as the lights went out as if to say, "Good work pal. We're just a couple of regular Joe's and everything is normal as can be." I found I couldn't help myself - I always did the double pat guy hug because I needed to normalize the situation for myself. I mean, one minute we're passionately embraced as our characters, and yet after the lights go out, I'm suddenly locking lips with my married colleague whose children I just ate tacos with between rehearsals yesterday. It's weird. It just is.
Because I'm a mezzo, and my repertoire is generally limited to playing teenage boys and innocent Bel Canto heroines, I actually haven't had to do that many steamy love scenes in my career. However, the most complicated love scene I've performed to this day, involved me wearing a skimpy lingerie inspired nightgown, and climbing all over a shirtless baritone who was wearing a big, fake, metal erection. Yes you read that correctly. And you thought opera was boring?
The opera was Lysistrata by Mark Adamo, and it is based on the Greek play of the same name where the women go on a sex strike to persuade their men to stop fighting a senseless war. During the second half of the opera, the men all have erections for the entire act (it's written right in the stage directions of the original play), so they had to fashion these metal contraptions that they wore under their costumes that popped out at the proper moment. Then at some point, my character has to try to seduce her husband into ending the war, so she is climbing all over him, trying to avoid being poked in the groin by this rather imposing, pointy, metal thing. We actually staged the whole thing before we had the "addition" and when he finally strapped it on (pun intended, sorry), forget singing -- I was trying not to impale myself with it. Eventually we worked it out -- as opera singers do, because we have to be very flexible actors who can adapt quickly to new dramatic situations. And because impalement would have been a real bummer for my diaphragmatic support.
There are some famous opera couples who often perform together, and the opera world is small enough that it's not unusual to play opposite the same person more than once. In those situations, at least a little of the initial awkwardness is dispelled and you can move on to other challenges. But there's absolutely nothing you can do to improve your breath after you've been nervous and have sung a bunch of high notes. So wish us luck.
*The above photo is from the New York City Opera production of "Lysistrata," with James Bobick and me. It's a great opera, and Fort Worth Opera is mounting a production this season if you're in the area.
*this post was adapted from an earlier post from my personal blog, Trying to Remain Operational.