The Washington Post

Opera: great personalties, bad actors

Since someone misconstrued my post about Angela Meade the other day, I thought it was worth revisiting the issue of acting in opera.

I have made the point before that I don’t hold much stock in the idea that singers today are better actors than singers were in the past. Yes, there is more emphasis today on a more realistic form of expression on-stage, but among singers who are touted as good actors, I don’t see a lot of attention to the actor’s craft. And I was certainly sobered to talk to a couple of veteran (and very fine) singers who said they learned a lot about acting by doing stints in film or Broadway shows. (David Pittsinger, for one, backed it up when I saw him at Glimmerglass last summer.)

But the point that I was trying to make in my post about Angela Meade had nothing to do with acting. It had to do with developing an on-stage personality. I’d venture to say that a too-realistic acting approach only hampers you in an opera like “Ernani,” where it helps to go in realizing that the whole thing is a little over the top.

It’s perfectly true that a number of great stars of the past were not great actors (though some were very great actors). A commenter on my Angela Meade post cited Montserrat Caballé and Victoria de los Angeles, to name two. However: Caballé was an absolutely compelling presence on stage. She had personality in spades. She offered something that you wanted to see, hear, experience.

This quality of persona has always been a part of what makes opera exciting. And you can’t always predict who will develop it. Take Luciano Pavarotti. At the start of his career, he wasn’t, by all accounts, anything special to watch on stage at all. He developed into something of a stage animal, with a legendary magnetism. He certainly luxuriated in the music he was singing. But he was never much of an actor.

This is what I meant about Angela Meade; and this is an aspect of the operatic art that I think tends to get lost today in training that focuses on all of the individual elements of opera -- singing, diction, language, and, yes, acting -- but not enough on what it takes to get out there and dazzle an audience.

Above: Acting versus personality - is Montserrat Caballe a “good actress”? And when you hear this, do you care?

A tangent to this discussion is the whole question of acting with the voice: Carlo Bergonzi may have been a wooden, somewhat tubby figure on stage, but the integrity of feeling in his sound is not to be discounted. However, I don’t think he would have done all that well in HD.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.



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