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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.

By Anne Midgette  |  September 29, 2009; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  opera , random musings  
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Three cheers!

Anyone who thinks that acting was missing from opera until Mr. Gelb came along should hunt up a video of the production of "Don Carlo" that Rudolf Bing launched his tenure at the Met with. The director was Margaret Webster -- one of the great theater directors of her day -- and a terrific cast that acted as well as singing gloriously. The confrontation between King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor was so chilling that I can still call up the image and shudder, and Philip's soliloquy and the death of Rodrigo left few dry eyes in the house. Verdi helped (of course!), but he needed the singing actors the Met put on the stage to make his effect fully.

Posted by: wsheppard | September 29, 2009 2:08 PM | Report abuse

I think it's absurd that singers who are experts in conveying emotion with the voice are often not trained at all in how to convey emotion using other parts of the body. Acting involves (1) internalizing what the character feels and (2) expressing it physically, and a good opera singer already does (1) -- and (2) with the voice, for that matter.

"Acting" doesn't require agility; it's often knowing how to express a lot with a little. I remember seeing Beverly Sills in "La Traviata" many years ago: When she replied to Alfredo's denunciation with her back to the audience, just the way she was standing spoke volumes.

Posted by: PLozar | September 29, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

While I agree with you that there were plenty of great opera singers who were also superb actors in the past, I don't agree with your blanket dismissal of the acting ability of today's top singers.
Having observed Dessay,Netrebko and others of today close up on DVD and telecasts, I can assure you that they most certainly cn act up a storm.
And yes, some famous singers of the past were of the "park and bark " school,too.

Posted by: Thehorn2 | September 29, 2009 3:38 PM | Report abuse

I would agree with you that Gelb's notion of 'acting' and everyone else's version of acting are two very different things. I think his version of 'acting' and 'realism' is more centered on singers who are not overweight and overact than singers who actually have a notion of realistic, oftentimes subtle, acting. I also would agree that there are many singers in ages past who have demonstrated a great capacity for acting, Callas, Malibran, and Chaliapin being prominent examples. In today's world, I'd put Bryn Terfel as a great example.

However, I think that while there is a history of great actor/opera singers, these have mostly been the exception to the rule rather than the rule. When you hear of these singers, they are noted for their exceptional acting ability. Meanwhile, there are far more examples of famous singers whose notion of acting was raising an arm for effect, but whose vocal quality and technique were superb (Joan Sutherland being the first among these in my opinion). The residue of this preference is evidenced in modern vocal performance programs in music schools. Most schools don't include any acting classes as part of their curricula. If they do, it's single semester. While there are some singers, Callas being the most notable example, who have a natural ability to act, that's not the case for most of us. Acting is a difficult skill that takes a great deal of work. While I am not a proponent of Dessay's apparent leveraging of 'acting' over vocal quality (I personally believe that the best actors in opera are those who manage to meld the two... see the singers cited above), I do think that they should be on equal footing, which is not the case in vocal training.

Posted by: dagneyandleo | September 29, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

You hit the nail on the head: it's a PR campaign. Understandably, any new management team seeks to distinguish itself from its predecessors. The pre-Gelb Met boasted many fine actors and productions, though Gelb seems to feel it's not in his interest to say so. He overstated his case this time.

Posted by: WilliamMadison | September 29, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Anne, I agree with you.

wsheppard, do you know if there actually is any film footage of the 1950 Don Carlo? Productions were not routinely filmed then.

Posted by: LisaHirsch1 | September 29, 2009 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Responding to LisaHirsch1, I have to admit that it was probably overly optimistic of me to suggest that footage of the Webster "Don Carlo" is available. I am sure the network made a file recording as networks did pretty routinely in those days. There probably was a pirate copy or two made at the time, but I don't know where one could be found today. And video recording was really primitive at the time.

The Met had a poster for the production that was very successful in capturing its effect. It shows the confrontation between King Philip and the Grand Inquisitor and can still give me shivers when I look at it.

Posted by: wsheppard | September 30, 2009 8:56 AM | Report abuse

Anne, your insights are most astute. Of course, there were singer/actors before this decade! I still remember Jon Vickers and Elisabeth Soderstrom in Peter Grimes in such a gripping performance that I truly thought Vickers was going to throw everyone off the stage! I saw Nilsson and Rysanek sing like sisters in Elektra with such ferocity that I cried! I heard James King sing Siegmund with such stentorian sound and heroic presence that I still wait for that ringing on stage! I have been moved several times now by the Wotan of James Morris. All these singers not exactly your petite types or your run about balletic singers, but athletes all! And they were capable of inhabiting their characters through the music that was written by the creator/composer!

I saw the Bondy/Peduzzi Tosca opening night and was so disappointed, not so much by the singing or acting, but by the manipulation of the audience. The translation was there for all to read and the action on stage was CONTRARY to what we were reading AND the production was so UGLY. Nothing to please the eye - no relief, no sense that amid the squalor of the acts being committed, there still existed what Tosca had lived for -- love and art! Where was Puccini? Maestro Levine tried his best with the orchestra and singers.

Posted by: pscimeca | September 30, 2009 1:04 PM | Report abuse

It's interesting to read pscimeca's citation of Leonie Rysanek because shortly after reading AM's thought-provoking post, I watched/listened to some youtube clips of Rysanek in Wagner (Ortrud).

Not having had the privilege of seeing her live, I've heard many accounts of her very active stage presence. Every anecdote documents her intense commitment that swept away all things before her, including her well-known pitch inaccuracies.

I can almost see the link between Rysanek's example of a very active "method" of acting and what some of what AM deplores in her post. In Rysanek's case, it's spell-binding. In some other cases (I often find Dessay's habit of inclining her head toward the floor to be dis-engaging), not.

[Sidenote on Dessay -- there are examples of her acting that I would feel very confident about using as counter-example to what AM has already discussed being unmoved by -- her Offenbach youtube clips, and a Lucia madscene moment that is chilling]

I have also heard many discuss that with so much being made of movie-casts and video recordings for DVD-release, direction is being tailored for the camera and not for the stage, which, though related, are very different mediums. Is it possible to tailor a production to both [I think yes, but it would require a lot of time and work]? If not, which should be more important?

Posted by: WallyP1 | September 30, 2009 4:42 PM | Report abuse

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