Wednesday, 25 November 2009

On responsiveness

I have been thinking a lot about the whole process of opera, sitting watching a very daring interpretation of a classic opera take shape in front of my eyes. It seems to me that so much of what works on the operatic stage is a question of being fully responsive. The director responds to the opera as a whole, and the singers have to find a way to respond to the director's vision whilst simultaneously responding to the music. It is particularly instructive to see what happens when these appear to pull in different directions; some singers stick their feet on the floor in panic, some argue blindly, some visibly pretend to agree (but have their fingers crossed behind their back; my first, belov├Ęd, singing teacher, was somewhat of the old school, and would tell me in all seriousness to go along with whatever rubbish the director came up with in rehearsal; in performance he/she wasn't on stage, and you could happily tootle down to the front of the stage in the middle and sing out!! I shudder to think what would happen to any singer who dared to try this now!). The best, however, dare to be open-minded enough to respond to the director's vision while letting the music flow through, and I have seen them visibly surprised by a fresh emotional response to this well-known music. All we singers know that we're meant to first TRY what the director suggests, and then tactfully suggest that one's performance might possibly be improved by not hanging naked from a rope by one ankle, or whatever - but in practice, few of us have the courage to try whole-heartedly. We should. (This particular director, I hasten to point out, is remarkably sensitive to the needs of singers - sightlines to the conductor, freedom of expression during an aria, even (rather amusingly) "bathroom breaks" are scrupulously respected.)

The conductor, at the same time, is responding to the music, and we as singers respond to the conductor's overall arch of feeling, as well as internalising the tonality of our own music, the way the words and music interact, right down to the persnickety little markings the composer put in there expressly to confuse us... (Of course it's not, technically, ALL about responding - I was reminded tonight, singing a few phrases in, that because I was so far upstage I needed to anticipate the beat even more - the physics of acoustics means that if you're that far back and sing with what you actually HEAR, the audience thinks you're invariably coming in late. It's an interesting part of the conductor's job to judge how to juggle the various voices and instruments so that they present a coherent whole to the audience.)

And of course we should be responding to each other as actors. Singers do this in a very broad spectrum; from the (usually; sorry for the stereotype) tenor who, concentrating on his high notes, ignores with dignity any interaction, to the person (often me) who's so busy reacting to the situation that she forgets to sing on cue. This is, to me, one of the MOST important aspects of an overall performance. It seems from having watched many performances over many years that only those who are responding freely and honestly to their music and their characters release the energy of a truly great performance. And in proportion to how far this ideal situation is realised is the energy of the audience allowed to reciprocate. Which explains the occasional "perfect storm", when the performers feel like the singing happened "through" them, and the audience feels they witnessed something unique and life-affirming.

However I am fascinated by just how strongly I feel about the whole thing; I can forgive anything in the way of a less-than-perfect voice (or body) if the responsiveness is alive; conversely, without that vivid response, what is the point of a gorgeous voice or a slim and sexy physique?

Please feel free to disagree. These are simply musings posted after a pretty late night of fairly non-stop rehearsals. I hope you enjoyed them!

1 comment:

  1. I am pleased to read this, and will come back to it again. It has given me some fresh enthusiasm to get some of my own musings down on (virtual) paper. Thanks.

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