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A Fine Line

What a fine line we classical musicians have to tread! Most everyone already has heard most of the pieces we play; some listeners even know every single note. We are suppoused to be faithful to the score, yet not sound pedantic. Not an easy task!

I recall that a young colleague of mine at the Vienna Conservatory played once a Mozart Sonata in what seemed an overly calculated and pompous way, as if trying to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. When she finished, the professor commented ironically: Schon Professorin! (I would translate it loosely as: Already a little professor!).

Indeed, at the same time that we endeavor to be accurate with the mechanical details, and faithful to the composer’s intentions and to the style, we must make that old sonata sound fresh, as if we were just then improvising the piece. We must play with spontaneity, with abandon!!!

Take the first measures of the famous “Moonlight” Sonata by Beethoven. Even though we have heard it again and again, we must not forget that when it was written in 1801 no one had composed anything like it. So, in fact, if we dare play it, we must erase over two hundred years of music from our minds, and at that moment hear it as something completely new, revolutionary, even shocking.

Imagine how those broken chord figures set against the slow moving bass octaves- and in the remote and trepidating key of C sharp minor -must have sounded to Beethoven’s contemporaries in relation to the works of Haydn, Mozart and other composers from that period to which they were accustomed. The knowledgeable Viennese listeners had probably assimilated either directly of indirectly some of the Baroque style, some Empfindsamer Stylcompoyitions and then some Mozart and Haydn, throw in some Porpora, Salieri, Hasse, Martin y Soler and perhaps some Dussek.

The harmonies and passages created by Beethoven in the Moonlight Sonata must have sounded disquieting, eerie, and the insistence of the repeated note motif haunting. Surely to our dulled XXI century ears, after assimilating an additional two hundred years of music that include Schoenberg, Bartok and Webern, this Sonata could sound quite mild.

But if we are to keep the sense of this music alive, we must clean our ears, as the taster cleans his tongue and mouth of any residue, so that she may fully appreciate a different flavor. We must erase from our minds and ears all subsequent music and hear this sonata with pristine ears, as when it was first conceived and performed. We must react to the music and not take it for granted. And while we are at it, we must at all costs avoid over-practicing. That way we may keep our emotional reaction to the music fresh and spontaneous.

We live in a primarily visual world. Facebook, YouTube and other media sputter a constant stream of highly visual information. Opera used to rely greatly on sound, and even today, many opera singers devote most of their attention to vocal production. While most audience members may not able to evaluate the musical aspects, almost everyone can spot poor acting. Why would many singers then concentrate solely on singing and neglect acting? Not every singer will become a great actor, yet vocalists can certainly profit from good acting training. Acting well will only enhance singing. Why do people come to the opera? While some come to be seen and some to hear the music, many come to be entertained. Yet the quality of acting in operatic presentations can be hit and miss. Some operatic performances, even at major theaters, are costumed recitals in which singers seem to move aimlessly while executing stock gestures. New York Times writer Charles Isherwood describes it brilliantly in Operatic Acting? Oxymoron no More:

“THE tenor sausage arms skyward, ignoring the soprano as he ardently professes his love to the grand tier. She looks on with a distracted smile, the slight tension in her eyes suggesting not swelling emotion but determination to nail the top note a few bars away. Note secured, applause graciously accepted, her fatal swoon has all the pliant delicacy of a redwood succumbing to a chain saw.”

And Washington Post Ann Midgette writes:

“There’s a lot of talk these days about how opera is producing a new generation of singing actors, and film forays such as Shimell’s seem to back that up. But talking to Shimell and other singers who have ventured outside opera tends to reinforce the hoary stereotype that opera singers can’t act.”

In Sure, they can sing (opera), but can they act? Great singing actors craft convincing characters who react to situations in a realistic way. Here are two examples. Teresa Stratas’ riveting rendition as Mimi in the First Act of La Boheme in this Metropolitan Opera performance: Study the performance in detail and note the many ways in which her acting and singing, together, support the text and help her bring to life the character of Mimi in the situation. Study the performance of the incomporable Astrid Varnay in this rendition of Kostelnika in Jenufa. Study how her acting supports the drama of the text. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann, in a recent interview with Peter Hall of WNED, comments on the importance of forgetting about the singing the moment of the performance, and insists on more natural acting in opera. Listen to 2’52’’ to 6’55’’

The good news: acting can be learned.

Daniel Daroca

© 2014

The Opera Atelier

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