“Opera almost always has more violence on stage than [non-musical] drama. Just about every production I work with, I run into a singer who has been injured in a fight,” says fight director Dale Anthony Girard.
Girard has worked with enough singers to amass a file full of horror stories. In addition to fight choreography engagements with opera and theater companies across the United States, Girard teaches stage combat and dramatic movement at Yale University, The Hartt School, and Chautauqua Opera. He also spent nine years at Central City Opera, taught at the National Theater Conservatory, and has published a textbook on staged swordplay.
One of only 11 fight masters recognized by the Society of American Fight Directors, Girard takes his craft very seriously.
“The opera artist’s job is to create an illusion, not survive a reality,” he says. “Educate yourself. If this is your career, you really want to look at the full spectrum of needs for the operatic stage.” That education includes learning to give and receive the illusion of violence on stage safely.
Real violence—grabbing, pushing, slapping, stabbing—has no place onstage, Girard maintains.
“When engaged in even ‘simple’ acts of real violence, the body becomes tense. The musicality of a piece suffers from tension. And if that isn’t enough to put safety first, an injury from even a ‘simple’ act of violence can affect the rest of your career.”
Girard thumbs through the file he keeps on stage-violence-related injuries and produces a New York Times article: “Opera Star Dislocates Jaw.”
“During a fight in Tosca, Juan Pons threw Eva Marton on the floor and she dislocated her jaw,” Girard explains. “She was able to pop it back in and continue singing, in considerable pain . . . but if she had broken that jaw instead of dislocating it, it could have potentially ended her career.”
Girard also recounts how a bass-baritone’s head was split open in a sword fight during a performance at one of America’s top houses.
“Safety rules were not adhered to,” he says. “They had a fight director, but there wasn’t enough rehearsal time to allow technique to become habit.”
Careful training with a fight director can lessen the risk of such injuries, but many companies don’t employ qualified personnel, or they leave fight choreography up to the director. Girard suggests that singers research a fight director’s qualifications prior to rehearsals. Talk to colleagues, and find out if he or she is SAFD certified as a fight director. Among the many different levels of certification, AGMA considers only those with the rank of fight director qualified to choreograph safe and effective stage violence.
“A lot of people don’t know they need a fight director until they’ve worked with one,” says Girard, adding that singers are sometimes resistant to his training until they realize he is on their side and worried about their safety and dynamics.
“AGMA has a great set of rules designed to protect the artist,” Girard says, “but not all artists know about them.” AGMA’s rules regarding stage violence are even more stringent than the Actor’s Equity rules, he says. A stage director may not overrule the fight director’s judgment regarding safety issues, and any production that uses weapons or uses props as weapons requires a fight director.
“Last fall, I was called in to do a Carmen at the last moment,” he says. “The AGMA representative got whacked by a sword and insisted they call in a fight director. After that the singers were much more comfortable and we had a safe fight that matched the dynamic power of the music.”
What if you’re not working with an AGMA company, or if you simply feel the situation is unsafe? Many companies don’t budget for a fight director, or hire unqualified ones. How can artists protect themselves?
“Negotiate safety within your contract,” Girard insists. “Know the show well enough to pre-plan for potential staged violence. Ask ahead of time who the fight director is, and get it in writing that you have the right to stop rehearsal if you feel unsafe. Several singers are now doing this, after being injured.”
Sometimes directors throw in unscored fights, and a performer must be prepared to deal with them.
“Have a set of rules you work with,” Girard advises. His personal rules are clear-cut.
“1) The victim is always in control. If you are really being pushed, pawed, or pounced, it’s going to affect you and your voice.
“2) Communication must be clear between the artists. If you are ever caught by surprise, it’s going to affect your voice.
“3) Everything has to be safe—and what’s safe for me isn’t necessarily safe for you. You may have a bad knee; I may have a bad back. You have to work within your own physical limitations.”
Young singers may be hesitant to offend colleagues or the administration by speaking up, even if they feel their safety is threatened.
“This is a step most singers don’t take,” Girard says. He suggests that artists speak out as the fight choreography is being taught.
“Don’t cop an attitude, but really state the truth of the situation. If you are uncomfortable, your musicality is being affected. Say, ‘I am uncomfortable with this. Is there another option?’”
Find options that give the director what he or she wants without anyone getting injured.
“Telling a colleague not to do something is problematic,” Girard says. “Find something that works for both of you and rehearse it to the point where the technique is not just understood, it is a habit.”
If the problem persists, speak to the AGMA deputy (if you’re working in an AGMA house) or anyone you feel will work with you—the stage manager, director, or an administrator. If you are pressured to continue with practices you consider unsafe, you may have to make a choice.
“Weigh the checks and balances,” Girard counsels. “I know a lot of singers who have gone ahead (with an unsafe scene) and gotten injured. Most singers when they’re young will say yes—but the injury could affect the rest of your career.”
“A ruptured eardrum or a broken nose can dramatically alter your instrument for the rest of your career. A gentleman on a national tour of Carmen had ribs broken in a performance. It could take over a year for the surrounding muscles to heal. Your breath is going to change—or what if that rib had punctured a lung? Either way, you ain’t workin’.”
With so much at stake, why is stage safety taken so lightly?
“Not enough injuries have been classified as ‘fight-related’ or even reported in order to make a fight director mandatory,” Girard says. “Unfortunately, it may take a serious injury to a major star to change things.”
Until then, how does a non-star performer stay safe?
“Sometimes,” Girard says, “you have to say no.”