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.
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? Continue reading