Indyana Schneider - To Feel? The Role of Emotions in Opera Performance

Indyana Schneider - To Feel? The Role of Emotions in Opera Performance

Photo: Maria Callas as Medea, Teatro alla Scala di Milano, 1961

At a recent production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen at the Oxford Playhouse, the performer singing ‘The Plaint’, a notoriously demanding aria, was instructed: ‘You need to be more expressive. I want your voice to break with emotion.’ The singer replied: ‘My voice will not break. If I am singing this aria unamplified, it is physically impossible for my voice to break with or without emotion.’ Herein lies the paradox of the opera singer – Prima la musica e poi le parole (first the music and then the lyrics) – the sacrifice of drama for music in a narrative art. So what is the role of the performer’s emotions on the twenty-first-century opera stage? Do you feel? Sing? Should you do both? Can you?

Different singing teachers and opera coaches tend to belong to contrasting schools of thought:

  • School 1 (to feel): Emotion should facilitate musicality.
  • School 2 (not to feel): Musical and technical skills should emulate emotion.

I decided to ask a non-musical friend (self-identified) what she thought because I know too many clever singers with too many clever and contrasting opinions. Without missing a beat, she brought up the ‘magnetic chemistry’ between Jon Snow and Ygritte in Game of Thrones – a parallel I had not yet considered. ‘Their chemistry is just so real and beautiful because they really do love each other in real life. I feel because they feel. Of course you have to feel when you sing.’ As a keen and practising advocate of School 2 (not to feel), I was distressed, of course. Maybe my friend wouldn’t feel or empathise during my own performances if I wasn’t devoted to the emotion. Maybe.

A very broad reading of the history of opera does suggest that the big reforms have renewed or heightened emphasis on the genre’s drama and realism. Take the identifiable situations and recognisable locations of Italian Verismo (literally: ‘real’) opera, the quicker storytelling and elevated plot importance of French tragédies en musique, Wagner’s ‘Opera und Drama’, and Berg’s twentieth-century strive to ‘fashion music conscious at every moment of its obligation to serve the drama’. In the here and now, the emotional vulnerability of pop stars is valued, often admired, even when emotion interrupts performance. Miley Cyrus’s iHeartRadio 2013 performance of ‘Wrecking Ball’ is a prime example: ‘It was totally heartbreaking and the whole audience, you could tell, just felt the pain.’ 

And it happens more often than you’d think.

Peter Gelb, General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, has claimed that ‘the raising of theatrical standards will be “the salvation of opera”.’ So, perhaps opera’s twenty-first-century reform, our next big step, could involve feeling emotion during a performance.

But opera is different. And I’m still a keen and practising advocate of School 2. And here’s why…

Firstly, opera’s inclusion of singing is unnaturalistic by design. If La Traviata’s Violetta is coughing and dying, why is she singing about it? It’s an inherently artificial art form because most people don’t converse melodically. More often than not, people don't sing in moments of extreme emotion. Unlike in theatre, emotional freedom and spontaneity on the opera stage is further inhibited as the orchestra and conductor control a singer’s rhythm and tempo. Under these constraints, the opera singer can’t allow an emotional trajectory to develop or thoughts to blossom of their own accord. And that’s before you consider the music’s structural repetition of lines and, in some cases, whole verses. Prioritising emotion over technique in such an art form seems at odds with its makeup.

I really find it so bizarre that some of our most successful and esteemed singers make it their goal to make the audience forget they are singing. Natalie Dessay is reported to have said that her ‘highest artistic ambition [is] to embody a character so persuasively, and tell a story so convincingly, that the audience forgets she is singing.’

Renée Fleming agrees. I recently stumbled on this video of Fleming on Facebook, which made me cry and shiver.

How, and more importantly, WHY would you want to forget that this exquisite emotion was sung?

It’s also been argued that with the vast sizes of opera houses, opera singers performing to faraway audiences must focus on singing technique in order to be heard. Some arias (think ‘Il Dolce Suono’ from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor) are so vocally demanding that the performer simply cannot dissociate completely in a visceral experience of raw emotion.

But let’s pause.

Let’s say that it was possible to disregard technique after much diligent practice. Even then, it is physically impractical to sing correctly when experiencing a raw emotional state such as laughing or crying. And incorrect singing is dangerous. Perhaps most importantly, opera singers must prioritise singing technique in order to maintain vocal health. Opera singing is an incredibly physically demanding activity and good technique is vital to career longevity and general health. Letting go, letting your voice crack with emotion night after night isn’t an option. It can’t be. I’ll never forget an opera coach’s advice to me. He said something like, ‘You just cannot expect a singer to go night after night giving everything to the music. It’s not physically possible. Maintaining a good vocal technique is the key to a long and successful career. You want a good show? Well, if the singer loses their voice, which they will if they disregard technique to “feel” or “let go” onstage, then there won’t be a show to judge.’ And he’s absolutely right.

So where does that leave us? Audiences still crave an emotionally moving experience. Opera is still criticised for its lack of realism. Can you sing with feeling without feeling what you sing? I’d argue that expressed emotion is more moving than felt emotion. Diderot is certainly in favour of simulated emotions: ‘But they say that an actor is all the better for being excited, for being angry. I deny it. He is best when he imitates anger. Actors impress the public not when they are furious, but when they play fury well’.

Renata Tebaldi was highly regarded for her technical mastery and beautiful tone. But her 1970 performance of the Card Scene from Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West features some very poignant, very emotive ‘screaming’.

She certainly appears to be experiencing intense emotion during her performance (see 6:50). Would someone so technically proficient really ‘let go’ in this way? Can an audience discern whether Tebaldi’s yelling was indeed felt, or rather, convincingly expressed in a vocally safe manner? Personally, I don’t think so. Ultimately, opera on stage is a performance for an audience. Interior experiences of intense emotions are often more ambiguous in performance and thus heighten the experience of the singer and not of the audience. I’d argue that only the selfish singer prioritises their emotional experience over that of the audience. Finally, in everyday interactions people constantly express emotions that they do not feel. We censor our emotional expressions all the time. Maybe authenticity, realism, resides in emotional simulation anyway.

So where are we at? Are we still reforming in the twenty-first-century? Are we still heightening the importance of the drama and realism? Sure. These days conservatoires include weekly acting and movement classes – a very recent revision. Renée Fleming recalls that when she began training as a singer in the late 1970s, conservatoires such as Juilliard had no crossover between the drama and music divisions.

An influx of opera directors from theatrical backgrounds has resulted in rehearsals of heightened emphasis on emotional realism in acting. Katie Mitchell recently gave a masterclass with New Chamber Opera in Oxford on arias she described as ‘beautiful musically’ and ‘catastrophic dramatically’. Addressing her theatre background, Mitchell stressed the need to approach drama differently on the opera stage. She infused the masterclass with Stanislavskian techniques, questioning the singers’ intentions and unpacking the histories and personalities of different characters without advocating that the singers should indeed ‘experience’ the roles whilst performing. I agree with Mitchell. Emotional authenticity is key but it needs a customised definition when applied to opera performance, like an authentic expression created through skilled singing technique and emotional research in rehearsal and conservatoire training.

An afterthought:

The potential surfacing of amplification technology in opera houses, already discreetly emerging, might dramatically change the emotional experience of opera singers on stage. Imagine the extreme close-up screens and mics you’d expect at a Beyoncé concert in the opera house? Audiences no longer faraway, singers less concerned with technical proficiency in order to be heard… Perhaps a discussion for a different day.

Indyana Schneider is an Australian, math-loving, karate-kicking opera singer, with a passion for performance and knowledge-acquisition. She read Music at Magdalen College, University of Oxford, and is currently working as the Development Manager for OperaUpClose.

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