Sure, they can sing (opera), but can they act?

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 19, 2011; 4:04 PM

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is known for working with subjects who aren't actual film actors. His latest movie, "Certified Copy," which comes to American theaters March 11, is a departure: It stars Juliette Binoche, chosen as best actress at Cannes last year for her performance.

But for Binoche's partner, Kiarostami stayed true to form and picked someone who wasn't an actor at all. He picked . . . an opera singer.

British baritone William Shimell has played lots of different people on the opera stage: Mozart's Don Giovanni and Don Alfonso ("Cosi Fan Tutte") among them. In fact, he'll be making his Washington National Opera debut as Don Alfonso next February. But film acting was not something he'd considered.

"It's not a career path that's open to most people," he said in a phone interview this month, with a self-deprecating humor that seems to be an off-camera trademark. The reason: "You normally have to be an actor of some sort."

I can hear the protests now. Opera singers are actors. And plenty of opera singers have been flirting with film appearances since the movies began. At first, many of them simply did versions of what they did onstage - heartthrob soprano Geraldine Farrar starred in Cecil B. De Mille's silent film of "Carmen" - or they played opera singers, whether affable (the teddy-bear Danish tenor Lauritz Melchior) or regal (Wilhelmenia Fernandez in Jean-Jacques Beineix's 1981 film "Diva").

But at least a few - notably retired divas - have taken on film roles without any operatic references at all. Joan Sutherland played the role of the mother in the 1995 Australian folk film "Dad and Dave: On Our Selection," and Galina Vishnevskaya, the great Bolshoi soprano and wife of the late Mstislav Rostropovich, played a determined Russian grandmother going to visit her grandson fighting in the Chechen war in Aleksandr Sokurov's critically acclaimed 2007 film "Alexandra."

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.

Actually, it's not that these singers can't act. It's that opera has so poorly equipped them to do so.

More is often too much

Shimell had no thought of making a film when he went to Aix-en-Provence in 2008 to perform Don Alfonso in "Cosi." The Aix festival had engaged Kiarostami, following a long-standing international trend of inviting film directors to try opera. When Kiarostami asked Shimell whether he'd like to be in a movie - the director's first to be shot outside of Iran - Shimell assumed he was being offered a couple of lines, not a leading role opposite an Oscar-winning actress.

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."

'Dramatic chances'

Shimell isn't the only opera singer who has had to learn basic rudiments of the craft by venturing outside opera. The opera singers who play Emile de Becque in the current revival of "South Pacific" also speak of their Broadway stints as a huge learning experience. True, the role involves singing (though it's miked), but it usually occurs during a break in the dialogue. The entire role isn't conveyed through song, as it is in opera.

"I don't ever want to go back to the way I used to do or approach an opera," says baritone David Pittsinger, who joined "South Pacific" on Broadway and, on the show's current tour, performed the role of Emile at the Kennedy Center this winter.

For him, the difference lies in the interaction with colleagues - being "encouraged to take dramatic chances" on the one hand, and "allowing myself to be more generous" on the other. The "generosity" of listening and reacting to other performers is a standard part of an actor's repertory , but it was new to Pittsinger.

"It made everything I did at the Met this year," he says, "more special than it's ever been."

"It's difficult for singers or people in the opera world to understand that acting is as much a technique as singing," says Dona D. Vaughn, artistic director of opera programs at the Manhattan School of Music, who for 10 years coached young singers in the Met's Lindemann program on acting. "I find that there are very few singers who actually have the discipline or take time to learn what acting is about, because there is so much emphasis on the sound of the voice and singing technique."

"I don't find a lot of character work done by our so-called divas," she says. "In the world of theater, it's something to be able to do a character who's different from what you are. Look at someone like Meryl Streep who transforms herself. I don't see that happening in opera."

The people directing opera could be doing a lot more to improve the quality of performances. Yet unlike the great directors of the past - Lucchino Visconti, for one - many today are disinclined, Shimell says, to actually correct singers, viewing them as a breed apart. "I find the higher you go, the less likely you'll be told you're doing something wrong," he says. "They'll say it behind your back, but not to you."

The rise of video recordings of opera performances, especially the Metropolitan Opera's live HD broadcasts, may start to change the picture. More and more singers are becoming aware of the demands of the camera through being exposed to it.

"I think," Pittsinger says, "we're heading towards an era where you're going to see a lot more people doing what I've done, because it's all so interconnected."

Kiarostami, in "Certified Copy," offers an interesting twist on the performance of his "non-actor." Shimell plays a British writer in Italy to give a talk about his latest book; Binoche, a gallery owner who takes him on a day trip through the countryside. Their initial conversation is toe-curling in its awkwardness. But the film, as it continues, raises questions about whether the characters actually know each other - and whether they are acting, for each other, throughout the whole thing.

It's a level of subtlety that few operas attain - and requires a nuanced performance from which Shimell, for one, at least, will continue to benefit.

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