Report by Daniel Somerville, 7 June 2015

Saturday 6th June 2015 – Royal Opera House

I feel I’d like to declare firstly my position and my reasons for calling this session.

I am both devoted and disgruntled in relation to opera. I have been a consumer/opera goer/lover/collector for thirty years. I have written about, commentated upon and reviewed opera in both print and on radio during that time and for the last seven years opera has been the subject of my academic study and detailed research – which has been singer focused – leading to a rigorous three year period of research for my PhD.

I am devoted to opera. I am disgruntled by opera through what I witness as being an erosion of its innate operatic-ness by the ever increasing tendency of directors coming from theatre to imposed naturalism upon an art form that is quite manifestly and (I would like) proudly unnatural (singing not speaking, articulation of drama by music, the manipulation of time, the disjuncture of voice and body/player and character, historical inaccuracies and malleable periodicity etc). I advocate the celebration of artificiality and superficiality, display, incongruence, camp, sentimentality, ego, meta-drama, event and the wholeness of the experience of opera giving emphasis not to drama or music but to the operatic.

I advocate for a new set of terms that utilise the operatic and foreground what singers are very good at (being operatic) rather than insisting upon an ever increasing load of skills for them to juggle in performance.

So, with that in mind I began the session by admitting that my provocation was simplistic – that I was in fact wanting to open a discussion about naturalism in opera, and if effect on the art form.

Obviously my session attracted a number of directors who were coming to opera from theatre.

I acknowledged that this definition of theatre does not encompass all the style and approaches available to theatre directors. We agreed as a group that theatre is not limited to naturalism.

People entering the group after this part did repeatedly reinforce this/use this as a stick with which to beat me. I felt frequently that directors coming in and out of the conversation merely dismissed my argument on the assumption that by making such an argument I must know very little about theatre.

However, what my research has shown, and what the group were willing to admit, was that often it is the case the when it comes to ‘acting’ the is a conflation of the terms naturalism and acting. That (perhaps through the prevalence of naturalism in cinema and commercial theatre) to act is to engage with naturalism and its associated exercises and methods derived in large part from Stanislavski.

There was a conversation in which we all acknowledged that Stanislavski changed his mind later in his career and that method acting is not a reflection of Stanislavski. It is not Stanislavski’s fault – I get that. I added that in fact when Stanislavski wrote about opera he advocated that singers should embody the music (an outside in approach rather than the more familiar inside out approach). I actually agree with Stanislavski on this point – why don’t directors directing opera use this part of what he had to say?

Here I drew on my own research to make a few points. Singers I interviewed (and of those present in the discussion all agreed) had only had exposure to ‘naturalism’ in acting classes when training. Furthermore, director that I had observed all (no matter what the style of the production) reverted to discussion of psychology, emotional memory/motivation/ intent/ back story (early Stanislavski – urgh!) in order to justify action/business or to get a singer to do something.

So finally we agreed that it is the case that, despite my narrow use of the term theatre to mean naturalism – it is the case that directors coming from theatre use naturalism as a tool to work with opera singers and it is the case that singers are taught that to be an actor is to act in the style of naturalism.

And what is wrong with that I was asked?

Another visitor to the group – clearly a director from theatre – derided me for my absurd vision of opera as subject to some kind of ‘kitchen sink’ revolution. I am not talking about realism, I am talking about naturalism.

What is wrong is that I would ask that we work with opera on its own terms and judge it on its own terms and not impose the terms of theatre upon it.

This happens, I ventured, not necessarily because (as was so often assumed) that singers are not very good actors but because directors need a sort of safety net. That actually we may be talking about the insecurities of directors.

Directors don’t like having their authority questioned.

The point was made that we may be looking at what is a peculiarly British phenomenon. We have a very text based tradition. In Germany for example this is not the case. However the point was also made that directors and singers usually have international careers and work both in the UK and abroad depending upon their career position.

A large part of the discussion involved directors arguing that ‘opera is narrative thin’ and therefore they are needed in order to fill in where librettists and composers have been neglectful (my words not theirs – I apologise to those directors who did remain throughout and who may now feel misrepresented). I was given examples of how singers had improved their singing and acting performances by being exposed to discussions of motivation etc.

This I acknowledge may happen and I am sure that singers enjoy any support and encouragement from their directors.

Please forgive the fractured nature of these notes – perhaps it is a demonstration of how narrative can be produced without a linear approach.

Directors asked me – why are we telling a story?

Directors told me – we have to do this kind of work with singers because we have to make it believable for them and for the audience.

Director told me that authenticity was important.

There is too much to say on the subject of authenticity – what is authentic about imposing a style of acting from the early twentieth century on any works written prior to that?

Directors were on the whole so totally convinced that opera as an art form is flawed

and that theatre has the tools to solve its problems.

Further provocation: Directors from theatre argue that we need believability and authenticity and that they are the only ones who can provide this. Yet when asked why do we need those things, they cannot answer. Theirs is a self justifying self legitimising position – like all patriarchal systems – you need this because we say so and we are the only people capable of saying what you need.

On this point rests my whole disgruntlement.

No, I argued – we can look to what singers can do well and we can create terms by which we may work with singer’s bodies as they are and the skills that they have – and the other considerations they have to encounter (often singing in a foreign language, needing to see the conductor, needing to hold their body in particular ways in order to sing they way they are required to) rather than trying always to add to their burden.

I just can’t help feeling that when a director tells me that we need believability I can only ask why? Why is this thing so important? Why do you think that audiences can’t make their own readings of a situation? Why do you think that composers play no role in completing bits of narrative that you think are missing because they are not in the text?

There was an air of frustration in the group – people left after a short periods. To be fair some stayed.

It was hard to discern if we were agreeing or disagreeing sometimes – because the point was repeatedly made that theatre isn’t just naturalism and that other styles of theatre might contribute to opera.

My response again is – yes, or we might look to opera and its traditions to solve the problems of opera. Why does theatre think it is the only art form capable of solving a problem on stage?

Someone interjected that Live Art might provide some solutions. (great I thought – yes at last we are getting away from theatre). However the conversation returned to how this may help ‘make sense of the world’ for the singers.

Why does it always have to make sense?

We discussed some issues of motivation to enter the stage. I suggested that perhaps we could enter the stage using our upstage foot. They laughed.

We talked about Mozart.

We talked about singing to the audience.

Someone suggested perhaps we don’t need directors.

I would say – we do need directors but perhaps we need directors who understand what opera is and what opera singers can do. Remain firm with my conviction that we need to address the terms. No one was willing to address the terms.

Deadlock. Theatre is right. Opera is wrong. (Oh, theatre directors – WHY?)

Opera can be right too – given an opportunity.

I may be guilty of being as immovable as theatre directors.

I just want opera to celebrate being operatic.

Someone accused me of advocating ‘park and bark’ style opera.

(You see what I mean about ‘terms’ – derisory comments about the skills of singers when measured against the terms of acting/performance from theatre, just don’t help)

I have to say I don’t mind it – I prefer that to what I so often see as a compromise.

Theatre style directing in the studio. Add the orchestra and the needs of the conductor and the requirements of the singer in performance and we get – not a wholly naturalistic form of acting and not a wholly operatic one either. Everyone is unhappy.

I may not have represented the fullness of the discussion in writing up my notes. I may have focussed more on the fractured and frustrating nature of the discussion in writing up my notes. I may have preferenced my argument over those of theatre directors. I wish only to make the point – opera is wonderful – theatre is also wonderful – but opera doesn’t always need to be fixed – opera can be very wonderful when it is operatic, absurd, incongruous, fragmented, slow, still, inaccurate – all the qualities we celebrate in postmodern theatre/performance are already going on in opera – allow them. My notes – as with my session are meant as a provocation. I mean no disrespect to those who attended. I am grateful for the opportunity to present an alternative argument. I am grateful to be able to demonstrate that there is not a consensus on what is good for opera. I wish to decentre and destabilise the position that theatre directors are claiming in the world of opera.

Comments: 2

Caroline Forster Anderson, 9 June 2015

A very interesting looking session and a very entertaining report. Was there any reference to the fact that both opera and theatre have sometimes employed choreographers and and designers as directors?

Daniel Somerville, 10 June 2015

In fact there was mention of design as direction. I used the exampel of how Barbara Hepworth's architecture for Midsummer Marriage had in many ways ‘directed’ performers. Tippett writes about this in his autobiography and the struggles to find a director - ultimately it was Hepworth and Tippett and the cast who directed it. I can't remember direct mention of choreographers but as I am a choreographer and I was making this argument I think that was probably assumed.