The Myth of Park and Bark
In this profile of Peter Gelb from the past weekend, the Metropolitan Opera's general manager yet again puts forth an idea that seems to have become a cornerstone of his PR campaign: in the old days, opera singers didn't use to act, but under my great new regime they do.
I get more annoyed by this ridiculous claim every time I read it. I think it shows considerable ignorance of opera and theater. First, because it ignores all of the singers of the past who were great actors -- it wasn't only Maria Callas. Plenty of Golden Age singers took their characters far more seriously than singers do today. Some roles, like Norma, were regarded as crowning achievements of a career, things to be studied for years before they were attempted on stage; and that wasn't only because the singer wanted to learn the notes properly, but because she wanted to internalize the character. These days, roles like Norma are seen as hurdles, ways to prove yourself as a singer. And "acting" involves simply taking roles like these and applying a certain kind of stage idiom to them. That's not acting. It's sports.
Indeed, as I've said before, I think the state of acting on today's opera stage is lamentable. Yes, we have more attractive people who like to move: Anna Netrebko, Natalie Dessay, Diana Damrau, Angela Gheorghiu. But their idea of "acting," often involves no more than lots of movement on stage. The basic principles of acting, the elements that help elevate, say, a great Shakespearean performance, seem not to be invoked, and people who might be presumed to know the difference -- like the director Adrian Noble -- appear to suspend judgment when opera is involved, since the fact that the people on stage can sing evidently puts them into another arena. (I can't otherwise explain the general absence of what I call real acting in Noble's "Macbeth" at the Met.)
Gelb appears to love the phrase "park and bark," which was used with justification of a certain breed of old-style singer. But before he can scorn the old style, he needs to demonstrate that he actually understands the difference between a weak production and a good one. I haven't seen yet that he does. Productions remain the Gelb regime's Achilles heel. The most successful new productions since Gelb's accession are the ones he took over from the English National Opera ("Madama Butterfly," "Satyagraha"), and the Broadway and stage directors he's brought in -- Noble, or Mary Zimmerman -- have yet to demonstrate their qualification to work in this medium, beyond a starry resume.
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