Actors and Performers

The Opera Singer's Acting Toolkit

Read an extract from The Opera Singer’s Acting Toolkit: An Essential Guide to Creating A Role by Martin Constantine. 

Opera Singer's Acting Toolkit
Opera Singer’s Acting Toolkit

Your job is to create truthful life onstage communicated through your singing voice, physical actions and engagement with other people and the world in which you live. The challenge is all too clear; life is improvised and spontaneous, whilst opera draws on stories with predetermined plot. The job of the singer is to make predetermined events appear to be unfolding in the present moment for the first time; to be remembering and forgetting simultaneously.[1]

Within these set parameters, this process is aided by play; the possibility of being surprised and to surprise. Play becomes easier when we are physically released, our awareness broadened and our imagination free to roam. Indeed, we are helped by the very nature of live performance itself; we are working with people, for the most part, all of whom are challengeable, suggestible, variable and open to the influence of a multitude of factors. The conductor will make slight adjustments of tempo from one performance to the next, orchestral instruments will alter depending upon the temperature in the pit and an audience’s response will vary, depending upon what night of the week it is, the weather outside and the levels of expectation inspired by reviews of a previous performance.

Opera is a careful balancing act of diverse elements drawn together to reveal the most intimate of moments; a flash of doubt in a lover’s eyes, the slow growing shame of a betrayal unmasked. The very act of balancing so many elements might seem to promote the appearance of a world alive onstage; the risk of disaster, of veering off balance, keeping all performers present and in the moment. Yet, as a consequence of such terrific risk, the temptation persists to do everything to minimise this danger; too often we hold tight, rely on proven tricks of behaviour and resist adaptation, rather than embrace the potential of the very thing that will keep the performance alive. I am not proposing wild lurches of interpretation from one performance to the next; the form requires discipline. However, it also demands spontaneity, play and glimpses of the unknown.

The musician Stephen Nachmanovitch writes:

Mozart was perhaps the greatest improviser with pen and paper. He often wrote the fair copies of his scores and parts straight out, inventing the music as fast as the pen would go and hardly ever blotting a line . . . The heart of improvisation is the free play of consciousness as it draws, paints, and plays the raw material emerging from the unconscious. Such play entails a certain degree of risk.[2]

Nachmanovitch’s observation of Mozart is important. We see scores in black and white, etched with markings, and they appear set, fixed and complete. The idea that Mozart was improvising, his work representing the interplay between the unconscious and conscious mind in the moment, is incredibly freeing for the singer. We are his collaborators. We need to meet him, understand his propositions in depth, in all their many layers, and find a way of rediscovering this initial moment of improvisation to bring to life his music and stories for an audience today. We need to nudge, prompt and inspire our subconscious thoughts to make them present in the moment, and allow them to merge with Mozart’s, to create his characters afresh. We must not simply enable the interplay between our own subconscious and conscious thoughts but, this being a collaborative art, also those of our fellow collaborators.

The journey, from the rehearsal room to the stage, is one of discovery; we learn about the world of the opera, the character we are creating and those our character responds to. The most fearless discoverers, and therefore the best learners, are children. Indeed, there is a direct correlation between learning and play.[3]

The way in which children play is important to note; they generally don’t worry too much about failure. If they fall over, they get back up and have another go. This spirit of play and discovery should be brought to your exploration of character and music; within yourself and between you and your collaborators. You need to take risks and venture into the unknown, in order to discover what you do not already know. You must play and risk falling. Throughout Opera Works we worked with a terrific teacher and improviser, Alex Maclaren, from The Spontaneity Shop. Alex’s opening invitation to the singers was to declare an oath; ‘We suck and we love to fail!’. This is a big challenge for a singer. Conservatoires and opera companies might not always seem like the easiest places to play but it’s important to remember that this is exactly what rehearsals are for. The most exciting singers and actors I have worked with use rehearsals to try, test and explore possible directions. Their sense of play is infectious and usually draws others in.

[1] Bennett, M. (2017) Analytic Philosophy and the World of the Play. London: Routledge, p. 85

[2] Nachmanovitch, S. (1990) Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. New York: Tarcher Penguin, pp. 8–9. Nachmanovitch, a musician, explores how improvisation and play relate to an artist’s work.

[3] Throughout his book, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, Stephen Nachmanovitch argues that the best education systems tap into the close relationship between play and exploration.

The Opera Singer’s Acting Toolkit: An Essential Guide to Creating A Role by Martin Constantine is available now from Methuen Drama.