How to understand, or at least pronounce, words convincingly in four languages. How to attempt to sing over several octaves without strain. How to tell a diminished chord from an augmented cord. When to take an appoggiatura from above and when from below. What is an appoggiatura?
These are all issues that keep the average beginning singer very, very busy. So even when acting class makes it onto the priority list, it is often given less attention than one might wish for and much less attention than it deserves. The fact that the theories and techniques for acting abound and are illusive, contradictory, or esoteric only makes matters worse. Even when things are narrowed down and someone claims to be teaching “the method,” this is still ambiguous. Disciples of Konstantin Stanislavsky are numerous enough that such a claim is like saying one teaches Bel Canto. It’s a better way to start a confusing argument than to actually learn something.
Working singers, like working actors, are rarely loyal to one particular school. Life on the boards makes pragmatists of people, and singers seem continually to be finding and sharing new ways to sing—swapping everything from breathing exercises to memorization tricks to interpretive ideas.
There are roughly the same number of books on acting as there are on singing, and they vary in usefulness. There are books specifically for acting for singers, but I don’t warm to the idea that specific subjects should be taught differently for singers, almost as if we are in need of remedial assistance. Some of the best known books on acting include Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting and Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares and Building a Character.
Some singers love to read books on vocal pedagogy. And if you love to read books on acting, there are many useful tips and interesting anecdotes to be found in these volumes—such as the one about the famous Russian actor that Stanislavsky writes of who used a thermometer to test his soup, wine, and other beverages at parties so that the liquids would always be the ideal temperature for his voice.
The main purpose of this month’s column, however, is to point you in the direction of the teachings of playwright David Mamet. For me, his book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor is the answer to the question “If a singer should read one book on acting, what should it be?”
The practices taught in method acting of physical relaxation and keeping the voice and body open when emotional, along with the concentration and emotional memory exercises, are amazing tools for familiarizing yourself with your body and emotions. I was a student of method acting for several years at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York City. I found much of value in the teachings of the method as derived by Strasberg from Stanislavsky.
Mamet is decidedly not a fan of this method and, for the purposes of performing an opera role, I tend to agree with him. The process of opening one’s body and voice and finding emotional truth as taught in the method actually overlaps quite a lot with what a singer does to prepare for a role. Mamet’s emphasis on the use of objectives to motivate all behavior seems more immediately helpful. (However, if you feel emotionally inhibited and not connected to your own sensory experience, method acting can be a great study—but so can therapy or meditation.)
My least favorite style of opera acting bears a close resemblance to misused method acting. It becomes emotionally narcissistic and indulgent—the singer working terribly hard to evoke, or at least demonstrate, a genuine emotion while neglecting what Mamet considers the core responsibility of the actor: to “find a simple action for each scene, and then go out there and do your best to accomplish that action.”
These actions, sometimes called objectives, are discussed in most schools of acting, but Mamet boils it down very clearly and makes short work of dismantling the importance placed on believing and evoking emotions. Using a musical example, he asks: “Does the musician devote his energies to forgetting that what is in front of him is a piano, and does the dancer strive to forget that she is dancing and endeavor to believe that what she is doing is walking?”
This brings to mind a recent “Lucia,” where the soprano, someone admired for both her singing and her acting skills, seemed terribly concerned with appearing mad. If I had to guess what she was attempting, I would say that she looked as if she were working very hard to try and find some way of seeming, or even feeling, insane. But if you have ever spent any time watching people who are truly crazy, they do not seem to appear that way to themselves at all. Usually, someone seems crazy because they are desperately attempting some totally inappropriate action which, in their own mind, makes perfect sense. They are intent on doing something, performing an action—such as, say, walking down the middle of the street naked to alert the authorities that the devil has taken over the government. They are not trying to believe that they are crazy. People in operas may seem crazy because their objectives are inappropriate or extreme, but like all people, they want something and they are working hard to get it.
Another “school” of bad opera acting is a sort of shallow interpretation that assumes that every word must evoke the feeling of that word. This results in a sort of redundancy that looks like word painting and doesn’t look anything like how people actually speak or behave. I recently heard a soprano singing “Steal Me” and, like most sopranos I’ve heard, she assumed that she needed to sigh on the word “sigh” and languidly emote the word “languid” and look entranced when she sang “entranced.” These may all be perfectly valid choices, but she seemed almost like a living dictionary rather than a person speaking with any sort of intention. This is what Mamet says is not acting but, rather, “making funny voices.” He also describes the use of emotional memory, as used in method acting, as “paint by numbers.”
Mamet distinguishes between the kind of simple, courageous performing of an action and the study of acting by what he calls “a generation that would like to stay in school.” Most singers understand that there is a big difference between what is taught in school and what are the most important things to know about being onstage. Conservatories would not make a lot of money, however, if they told you the truth: that you need to have an excellent voice and solid technique to get any kind of work, so find the right voice teacher and put almost all of your energy into vocal development.
I recently spoke with a singer who in the past couple of years has made her debut at most of the major houses in the U.S. and abroad. At Lyric Opera of Chicago, there is sort of a buddy system for young singers, and she had a coaching with Natalie Dessay. I asked her what Dessay had taught her. She said she simply stripped away everything that was not about what the character was doing. She stripped away any vocal showing off or any overly flowery singing.
There are a lot of things we’re taught to do or that we like to do because they make us feel like “experts” or “artists.” But these things draw both us and the audience away from our primary responsibility as storytellers. We behave onstage like well trained singers, not like human beings engaged in dramatic action. That seems to be how Mamet feels about much of what is taught as acting.
I studied with Mamet many years ago, and I will never forget something that he said one day in response to two people who were working on an exercise. They seemed to be demonstrating a lot of emotion and working very hard, but they had lost the thread of the exercise, which was for each to focus on what they wanted to get from the other person. Eventually, in some frustration, Mamet lashed, “Get off the stage. There’s too much acting going on!” Likewise, I often feel at the opera as if there’s too much singing going on.
Several of Mamet’s students—Melissa Bruder, Lee Michael Cohn, Madeleine Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previtio, and Scott Zigler—went on to write a book, A Practical Handbook for the Actor. It discusses Mamet’s technique and emphasizes the importance of physical action and “the truth of the moment.” This means that as you perform your action, working toward your objective, you respond to what is actually happening in the moment onstage.
Mamet sums this up in his True and False book when he quotes James Cagney, the great film actor and tap dancer, who said: “Find your mark, look the other fellow in the eye, and tell the truth.”
Working onstage with a good, simple objective that is clear to you and engaging to attempt will get you a very long way in any scene. If you have done your homework and sing all the right notes well, a strong objective will give you more than enough to hang your hat on and feel at home onstage. Mamet’s book helps you to consider where you want to find your integrity as a performer: by showing off various tricks or by having the courage to be true to the story you are telling.
The kind of relief that you can give yourself onstage by focusing on what you want to accomplish can help you find peace on your path as a singer. As Mamet says: “While you are intent on an objective, you do not have to compare your progress to that of your peers, you do not have to worry about a career, you do not have to wonder if you are doing your job, you do not have to be reverent to the script—you are at work.”