I Don’t Believe You! – Acting for Real Part 1

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.” 


In attempting to make singing actors out of classical singers, I’ve observed frustrated teachers and students trying to marry the sound of the voice with the sense of the scene.

Almost every “Acting for Opera” workshop I’ve attended includes reciting the text followed by reciting a character’s “facts” and concluding with a Frankenstein performance mashing all those things together.

It goes like this:

  • Teacher has Student recite the text of the aria.
  • If Teacher wants to really torture Student, she will have Student recite the translated text word-for-word in English.
  • Teacher, with a lengthy oration on how to flesh out a character, asks Student to rattle off the “who, what, when, where, why” of the character’s circumstance during the character’s aria.
  • Singer gives the facts.
  • Student proceeds to perform the aria again, this time singing the happy bits with a smile and the intention “to inspire joy” and the sad bits with a faraway look and the intent “to recall a happier time.”
  • Teacher looks at the rest of the class with pride and leads the ovation.

Ta-Da!! In a brief 25-minutes the aria has magically transformed from the standard park-and-bark to a performance complete with gestures, facial expressions, and dynamics.

English: Spanish opera singer Jose Mardones (1...

And I’m sitting in my seat unmoved, thinking “I still don’t believe you!  I don’t believe that this is what it feels like to be on top of the world, in a fight with your lover, betrayed by your best friend, dying of consumption…” Here’s the truth. You don’t have to shove those details in my face, Singer. You only need to give me permission to have two things: the clean canvas of your own honesty and an infinite palate of pure colors provided by an honest performance of the music and the text with which to paint my own human experience in this very REAL moment.

“I still don’t believe you!  I don’t believe that this is what it feels like to be on top of the world, in a fight with your lover, betrayed by your best friend, dying of consumption…”

Just as the acting teacher struggles to pull something deeper out of an opera singer’s performance, there is a struggle among opera coaches as to which acting style is the most appropriate to facilitate the athletic demands of the singer’s instrument. A popular argument at this time is that opera singers can never take advantage of a true Method acting technique, as total immersion into a character will most definitely interfere with the ability to produce the correct operatic sound. Sadly, many of those who uphold this conviction don’t really know what they mean by “Method”.

Next, Part 2: The Madness to your Method

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5 thoughts on “I Don’t Believe You! – Acting for Real Part 1

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  1. I agree! For me, what makes opera more interesting than “normal acting” is that the connection singer/audience happens THROUGH THE SOUND on a much deeper level than only the emotional level. Great singing communicates pure being.
    Trying to “totally be someone else” is an approach that doesn’t get to the audience as much as “trying to be totally myself in this different setting”.

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