Poetry, Music, Action! Exploring Art Song in Opera Workshops

By Ilban, Serdar | Journal of Singing, September/October 2010 | Go to article overview

Poetry, Music, Action! Exploring Art Song in Opera Workshops


Ilban, Serdar, Journal of Singing


OPERA IS THEATER! As the historic misconception of the opera singer's inability to act slowly fades away, demand for the skilled singing actor is rapidly increasing. Today's opera companies, agencies, conductors, and stage directors hire singers based not only on their vocal capabilities, but also on their acting skills and ability to move well on stage. A performance has to go beyond talent or technique and integrate dramatic honesty and stage presence.

In order to prepare young singing actors for what is expected in the "real world," music programs in well established colleges and universities increasingly include acting classes for singers in conjunction with their opera workshops or studios. Most often these classes or sessions are called "Acting for Singers," which attaches itself to some other misconceptions: the singer is in need of serious corrective help before becoming the singing actor, or the acting style a singer utilizes is inferior to that of a straight theater actor. These may especially ring true if we are specifically dealing with young singers in their first or second year of study in an undergraduate music program. The average young singer has a tremendous amount of learning to do. He/she is absorbed by the process of learning the basics of music theory, the concepts of resonance and breath support, comprehending (let alone pronouncing) new and mostly foreign musical terms, and preparing vocal literature. It is only natural for "acting" to take a place on the back burner until some of the technical issues are resolved.

Teaching these students becomes equally challenging for the teacher/director when these young singers enroll in opera workshop courses in order to meet the demands of the academic curriculum. Often, in order to enroll in opera workshop classes, the student must audition or obtain the consent of the instructor. However, with the current economic climate and increasing budget restrictions, enrollment in such classes is more about a numbers game than the student's proven skill level. The task of planning a well balanced performance event involving an array of students with various skill levels becomes formidable. Dealing with time restrictions, heavy teaching schedules, and limited rehearsal space often leaves teachers very little time for imaginative programming, and it becomes tempting to rely only on standard operatic literature for classroom work and performances.

In general, this sort of programming may yield perfectly acceptable results. Today, however, the Internet has become the primary source of research for many students. Performances of numerous operatic scenes are readily available in both audio and video formats-often with foreign texts already translated. Students with so much at their fingertips often do not go beyond learning the music. I have nothing against the Internet and the countless possibilities it offers. However, when secondary learning tools take the place of the creative and critical learning, it becomes very easy to end up with shallow characterizations based on already conceived portrayals rather than character research and analysis.

Diagnosing the problems faced by today's opera workshop students and teachers is a relatively easier task than offering actual solutions. In most cases, character analysis is a task too difficult for students because they can relate to a libretto only in its musical form. Reading the libretto in the original language or in an English translation appears to be a futile task, as it does not help them learn the notes. Most often the operas are too long and their attention spans are too short.

Dancing to the Silence

Below are some examples of in-class exercises that may help students research, understand, and relate to the poetic text of a song or aria without its musical form.

* Choose a poem in English or in English translation from the standard art song repertoire.

* Assign the reading and memorization of the same poem to each student.

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