David McVicar and Royal Opera Insights: Directing and Acting

The Royal Opera live-tweeted an interview with David McVicar as part of their “Opera Insights” series.  McVicar’s Salome (inspired by the 1975 Pasolini film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom – not a film for the faint of heart of weak of stomach) has been in rep at the Royal Opera since it premiered in 2008, and his new Les Troyens opens toward the end of June.

Based on the ROH’s tweets, the interview covered a lot of ground, from rehearsal methods to to surtitles to comic acting in opera.  Unfortunately, the ROH has no plans to make a complete version of the interview available, but they have assured us that clips will be forthcoming.  The parts of the interview that were relayed across the twitterverse (you heard me!) were rather provocative.  I spent much of the afternoon pondering his first answer:

David McVicar tweets from the Royal Opera

And they’re off!  “I don’t believe that you can direct unless you’ve acted,” says David McVicar.  This is quite a common position in theatre; and, within the context of theatre, I completely agree.  Acting is an invaluable experience for a director – to understand what it’s like to be on the other side of the production table, to sense the audience from the stage, and to have experience with the basic challenges of acting, from character work to memorizing lines, provides a great deal of insight into what your job is as a director.  You will note McVicar does not say that a director needs to be a good actor, necessarily (though perhaps that part of the interview just never made it to twitter), and this is an important distinction.  The issue is the experience rather than the quality.  (Of course, a director who is a good actor commands more respect from the cast, but a director who struggles with acting may also have more respect for the actors’ process.)

But what does this mean for opera?  McVicar is not a singer.  Konwitschny, Neuenfels, Bondy, Zambello, Lepage, Herheim, Chéreau, Vick, the plethora of British National Theatre employees that have taken a few stabs at opera directing, the directing Wagners – I am 99% sure none of these directors have performed opera.  As far as I know, none of them even sing.  The only singer-directors that spring to my mind are Catherine Malfitano and Gidon Saks, and neither can be said to have made much (if any) impact as a director.  Peter Kazaras had an international singing career, but his directing work hasn’t left the US, as far as I know.  (His directing work has, however, been very important to the Seattle Opera and the Wolf Trap Opera in Virginia.)  There are, of course, many regional opera directors and directors of collegiate productions who came into opera originally as performers, but there is not much overlap between the worlds of the regional and international opera performance communities.

There are practical reasons why we don’t see a lot of opera performer-directors.  While there is a lot of overlap between the skills a director and an actor will have, the only place where singers and directors overlap is opera; and nobody studies opera exclusively (try as they might!).  Attempting to study and gain experience in both singing and directing to the point that one could viably pursue either career would be a massive undertaking – probably why most singer-directors are singers who turned to directing after their singing career started to cool down.

But aren’t opera directors missing something?  If, as McVicar says, you can’t direct unless you’ve acted, shouldn’t it follow that you can’t direct opera without having performed it?   That would seem to solve a lot of problems – the director would have a better idea of what the singer is physically going through and can tailor the blocking accordingly, which would help reduce moments of conflict between the music and the drama.  The physical demands of classical singing are difficult to understand without any personal experience of classical singing – it is extremely physically demanding and involves a lot of head-games.  It technically gets easier as you gain more experience, but that experience and muscle memory is often built on little tricks and habits that can make the singer seem awkward if they aren’t able to finesse these quirks into their acting.  That said, in many cases a singer’s performance can be improved if they are able to stop thinking about their vocal performance and focus on something else.  Which brings me my next point…

Maybe it is okay that the directors aren’t singers.  As I said before, becoming an experienced director and singer is a massive undertaking, and obviously there aren’t enough singers turning to international directing careers in their autumn years to make that a viable option.  Maybe the problem is that singers aren’t actors.  Acting is the halfway point – it’s where the skills of the director and the opera singer should overlap (opera is theatre, after all…).  I think people involved in opera production/performance tend to take it for granted that music and theatre rehearsals are essentially the same – you come in, you rehearse your text, there’s someone who gives you tips and shapes the performance for you, a few dress rehearsals, and you perform.  This is not the case.  First of all, the dynamic between the singer and the conductor is very different than that of the actor and director.  A singer will run through his/her performance with the conductor, the conductor will make some technical suggestions, maybe revise the phrasing in places,  say things like, “Really let loose on that note; I’m watching you, and the orchestra won’t come in until you’re ready”, etc.  A conductor only had a handful of rehearsals with the orchestra, about 3 rehearsals with the singers that focus specifically on the music, and maybe the odd coaching session or two.  The actor/director relationship is (ideally) based on a dialectic process.  The director presents their interpretation of the work, the actor reads through it, the director will ask the actor questions and offer different things to try out (different angles, different points of focus), the actor will respond with their sense of the character and what he/she thought did or didn’t work – weeks are spent going back and forth, refining the process until the cast and director have found something that both serves the director’s interpretation (which may have changed pretty significantly at this point) and fully engages the actor.  Ideally.  It’s very process-oriented and the director does not necessarily expect the staging they wrote down in their prompt book to be what happens on opening night.  Going back to an even more basic stage in the development of singers and actors: actors receive the bulk of their training as part of an ensemble, singers receive the bulk of their training on an individual basis.  It’s no wonder then that singers seem to be more focused on their individual performances than on engaging with their fellow cast members (of course, it doesn’t help that a lot of opera directors inexplicably place singers yards away from eachother during intimate scenes – I think they’re afraid of not using all of the stage, which is silly and another post).  In music rehearsals everyone comes in, they know their music, they listen to their conductorand they take their notes dutifully and respectfully (if they don’t like the conductor, they typically save it for the break room).  Musicians are often remarkably efficient and professional, but this isn’t how theatre is made.  Theatre is not an efficient process, and there’s a different kind of professionalism at work.  Yes, many singers are required to take some kind of Acting 101 course, but it’s not enough; and I’ve heard from professors in vocal performance programs that these requirements are actually being cut in many programs to accomodate changes in standards of collegiate music education.

I don’t think it is out of line to say that, in opera, singers need to learn how to be actors – they should be singing actors.  Directors should have experience acting not just because they should know what it’s like to act but so they understand how an actor engages with a director.  Many opera singers do not seem to have learned this step – how to engage with their director when creating a piece of theatre, i.e. how to be an actor.  There are always exceptions – there are some wonderful actors in opera.  But engagement with the director and active participation in the creation of this piece of theatre should not be the exception; it should be the rule.  Everyone needs to act.

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