Acting for the Singer: Opera and Musical Theatre Rehearsal Prep

Acting for the Singer: Opera and Musical Theatre Rehearsal Prep

Crossover artists must balance the expectations and requirements for acting in both opera and musical theater. Training differs for singers in each genre because each prioritizes expression differently.


Whether performing an opera or musical theater role, you must also be an actor. At first glance, crossover acting skills may seem obvious. Let’s compare and contrast the unique processes and characteristics of acting in each genre according to several artists who have shared their experiences in both opera and musical theater. 


A Shift in Expectations

Historically, opera singers have not had the reputation of being great actors and may have been labeled with the old “park and bark” stereotype. But that is no longer true. Opera singers are now expected to be truthful storytellers and skilled actors as well as highly skilled singers. Thomas Gregg, a member of the voice faculty at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee says, “Today opera and musical theater overlap much more, both striving for truthful characters with real emotions.” And Lauren Cook, an artist in Boston shares, “When I first started out, classical singer acting was much more presentational. For example, a lot more cheating out to the audience, more moments of stillness and grander, more stylized gestures. However, in the past few years, I feel like it’s moving closer to straight and musical theater—more movement based, more organic, better communication with scene partners, and just more natural.”

Acting Training

The acting expectations for opera singers may be changing, yet the acting training differs in some very distinct ways from that of musical theater singers. First of all, musical theater students are trained in straight acting. They take acting classes that work on classical and contemporary theater, and there is no singing involved. They are often simultaneously taking movement and speech classes for actors as well as dance classes where they are also acting and telling stories, but without the use of their voices. So, musical theater students are working in several media, but acting is what ties all the storytelling methods together. Classical singers get the bulk of their acting training from classes like “acting for singers” or sometimes “movement for singers,” where the acting training is rarely separated from the singing. 

 Describing her acting training, Lauren Cook says, “The big difference for me has been that the acting tends to be layered in last in classical singing, where in musical theater it’s tied even to the learning of the music and choosing how to vocalize.”

 Katy Early, a New York based director and performer says, “In musical theater acting classes, it was explicitly made clear that the story of the scene was the most important thing to get across—even if your voice cracked momentarily, etc., to keep the momentum and energy of the scene going was paramount. In opera theater acting classes, the standards for clean, clear vocalism were higher. The task became how can you get as much of the story across as possible with as few vocal distortions as possible?”


Preparation before Rehearsals Begin

All crossover artists agreed that the pre-rehearsal preparation is different when preparing for musical theater. Almost unanimously they agreed that in opera, more work is required before rehearsals begin. Lauren Cook notes, “Preparing for an opera role is a much a longer process, as things can be in the works months in advance, and generally there is more music to learn, especially if it’s recitative heavy. The acting usually doesn’t happen until the finessing period.”

 Katy Early says, “I learn and memorize the role on my own, then work on arias with a voice teacher, then work the whole role with a coach months before the rehearsals begin.” CJ Greer, assistant professor of voice/musical theater at University of Nevada–Reno writes, “Preparing opera takes so much more time invested up front—particularly if the opera is in a foreign language. Knowing the language, pronunciation, translation, the lilt of the language, and doing all of the memorization before the first day of rehearsal takes a great deal of dedication and discipline. The music needs to be memorized perfectly.”

  One difference in musical theater from opera is that generally in the first music rehearsal is where voice parts for the ensemble numbers are assigned. Greer explains, “A lot of voice part assignments are made once you arrive at rehearsal, so it is harder to plan ahead than in an opera, where you are ‘Fached’ into a voice type.”

CJ Greer

 It is also interesting to note that because of the classical Fach system, a classical artist may come to the first rehearsal having done the role several times already. Even if you haven’t performed the role before, chances are that you have sung the arias for years and worked on the scenes in a class. This influences the first rehearsal expectations in opera but is very different from musical theater, where artists may occasionally repeat roles but are often cast in a variety of shows for a summer stock season—and those shows are not likely to be repeated in the next season.   

 I don’t think that musical theater directors will ever complain if you come to the first rehearsal completely memorized; however, there is usually a date set in the rehearsal schedule when performers are expected to be “off book,” or memorized. 

Lauren Cook

It is more important that you know your material well enough to be able to work freely and collaboratively. Come to the first rehearsal with ideas that will be explored during the rehearsal process. Be ready to try the scene or song in several different ways before the final version is created or decided upon. This expectation extends not only to the acting choices but the singing choices as well. Greer describes, “I do my script and character analysis and explore the backstory, but I want to understand who my scene partners are before those decisions are made so that we can come to them as a team. I always have thoughts and options, but not decisions.” In some ways it may feel that preparations for the first rehearsal in musical theater are more relaxed, and in other ways there may be more expected earlier in the process than in opera. 

It is a good idea to arrive at musical theater rehearsals prepared to move. Generally, early in the process the rehearsals are divided into music, blocking, or dance rehearsals—but wear comfortable shoes and movement clothing for every rehearsal, just in case there is a sudden change in the schedule. If the director or costume designer wants you to have rehearsal shoes, skirts, or other clothing, those will be provided for you. 

Katy Early

Additional Advice to Crossover Artists

If you are new to musical theater acting, consider this advice:

 “Do all of the things you would do for an opera except: when you prepare your acting choices, have several options on the table and stay open and generous to the choices of your scene partners.” — CJ Greer


“Start your dramatic work first thing! In musical theater, the dramatic work is much more tied to the singing. Choices need to be made sooner and are so much more related to how you sing than in opera. Don’t wait till the last minute to be in character!” — Lauren Cook


All of the training you get as an actor will be useful in your crossover journey, but you may want to consider taking an acting class as you prepare those audition cuts. Then once you “book it,” if you arrive at your first rehearsal with your material well learned, ready to explore several dramatic ideas, wearing clothes you can move in, and a pencil in hand, there will be no way to tell that you have not done this before.

Christy Turnbow

  Christy Turnbow is currently teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has taught at Montclair State University, Penn State University, and Brigham Young University. She earned an MFA in musical theater voice teaching from Penn State University and a BM from Brigham Young University in vocal performance and pedagogy. She has been seen in leading roles in regional music theatre productions and national tours.