Bigger, or smaller?

I seem to be on a roll of quoting other people. Either I’m lazy and am just getting other people to talk for me, or other people are doing a great job of making me think.

Or both.

In any case, today I ran across two seemingly opposite opinions about acting on the operatic stage. One is from critic Zachary Woolfe, who reviewed the Metropolitan Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor (incidentally, one of the first operas I ever saw at the Met). The other is from baritone William Shimell, who found himself acting alongside Juliette Binoche in a film by Abbas Kiarostami – a director known for choosing to work with actors who have no actual training in acting for the screen.

Zack Woolfe, on Natalie Dessay’s performance in the title role of Donizetti’s opera, wrote:

With an eye, perhaps, to its growing live simulcast audiences, the Met’s recent productions can seem directed at the camera rather than the audience in the theater. Ms. Dessay’s performance suggests as much. Her little fidgets, eye motions and twitches around the mouth register in the high definition of extreme movie theater close-ups, but they disappear in the opera house, along with our interest. By the time she delivers a fine, tensely eerie mad scene, the stakes of the drama — that queasy, distinctively operatic blend of empathy for and exhilaration over the heroine’s degradation — are almost entirely forfeit.

In her article about William Shimell’s experience in Kiarostami’s film, Anne Midgette wrote:

Working for the camera was daunting – and rewarding. “It’s changed the way I do all of my opera,” Shimell said. “I pare down. I do as little as I can – what I think is necessary to make the character clear. Anything else is extraneous.”

Paring away extraneous movement is part of acting training. Maria Callas, indeed, used the approach to focus her searing operatic performances. But for Shimell, it was a new concept. “I used to think you had to act the person onstage,” he said. “I would behave in the way that singers do.”

Because singing without amplification, loudly enough to be heard by 4,000 people, is itself a physical activity, many singers incorporate physical gestures into their singing without realizing it. Working in film, he realized for the first time that “the more you do the less effect you have.”

So do you pare down, or do you scale up? I should state that I don’t know a damn thing about acting, except for my own reactions to performances. I do agree with Anne Midgette’s statement that “it’s not that these singers can’t act. It’s that opera has so poorly equipped them to do so.” And I am thrilled that acting seems to be taking on more importance in opera productions.

In a way, both Woolfe and Shimell are right. Many performers need to pare down their gestures and movements to what is necessary to be expressive. They also need to be aware of the medium they are working in, its scale, the audience. You can strip away what’s extraneous, leaving the core of what’s important, and still scale up for visibility. Robert Brubaker’s acting as Mao in Nixon in China comes to mind: I could see from the heights of the balcony his shaky legs, his defiant gestures, his fragility and his tenacity. Every movement was big enough to be seen, but there was nothing extraneous or unconsidered.

When I watched the HD broadcast of Nixon, the character of Pat Nixon (Janis Kelly, oh my god) came to life. So did Richard Nixon (James Maddalena) and Chou En-Lai (Robert Braun). I could see so much gorgeous detail in their faces and their smallest movements. Only my opinion of Brubaker didn’t change much, because he had scaled up from the start. (And yes, Mao offered more room than other characters to do that.) Subtlety can get lost in a big space; that’s why I’m glad I watched the opera both in person and on screen. But if there had been the kind of excessive, pointless movement that Shimell talks about paring away, that would have come through in either medium.

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