In response to an article in The Washington Post this past Saturday by the Post's chief classical music critic Anne Midgette titled, "Sure, They Can Sing (Opera), But Can They Act?", a vigorous and intelligent discussion pro and con ensued on the venerable Opera-L listserv with some taking exception to Ms. Midgette's points and a few even objecting to her supposed motives for writing the piece. We were not numbered among the former and were most decidedly not among the latter. The acting that's typical in opera has long been a sore point with us and we largely agreed with what Ms. Midgette had to say in this piece, especially her quoted observation that in acting in opera "the more you do the less effect you have." Here, for instance, is what we had to say on the matter of acting in opera in this 2007 S&F entry concerning the PBS telecast of the Met's HD film of Puccini's Il Trittico:
Had [Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica] been up to spoken theater theatrical standards (as opposed to opera theatrical standards) I would have found the experience of watching those two operas entertaining enough to not be an altogether terrible way to spend a couple hours. But there they were. Those bloody singers doing their bloody stock Italian opera cartoon gestures which opera singers, TOFs, and other lovers of Italian opera imagine are genuinely expressive dramatic devices, the very worst offender being the bloody Italian tenor (Salvatore Licitra as Luigi in Il Tabarro), natch. And there were all those people moving — always moving — about the stage doing...who knows what. And again there were those bloody singers whose characters were variously engaged in intimate or dramatic tête-à-tête with other characters but who were singing with their faces turned toward...the bloody audience(!). [...] If anything makes the case for Peter Gelb's declaration that opera needs to pay more — lots more — attention to the theatrical side of opera, this production is it. [...] For the future, Mr. Gelb has his work cut out for him, I'm afraid. If I might make one small, constructive suggestion to Mr. Gelb it is that he ought to institute a new policy for all singers, institute it immediately, and make it mandatory. And that is that for all rehearsals the singers — especially the Italian singers — be compelled to sing and act out their parts with their hands tied behind their backs — literally. Ultimately, it will work marvels dramatically.And, yes, we were (and are) perfectly in earnest about that last. The plain fact is that in any opera that's genuinely dramma per musica (as opposed to, say, bel canto opera where such is, by and large, merely a pretense; mere pretext and platform as we've previously put it) what needs to be gotten across dramatically by a singer is in the music itself. The music does almost all the work for the singer dramatically. What's required of a singer in that respect is the skill, technique, and training necessary to realize that dramatic content fully with his/her primary instrument: his/her voice. The rest is simply punctuation, so to put it; necessary for clarity but not essential dramatically. For all opera that is genuine dramma per musica there are two cardinal rules for singers where matters dramaturgic are concerned: 1) Keep physical gesture and action to the clarifying minimum the dramatic situation requires, and most importantly 2) never face the audience directly except for special-effect purposes. In opera, there is, dramatically speaking, never a reason for a singer to face the audience directly except for special-effect purposes, and that includes even for the most emotionally charged and introspective soliloquies which are no exception. Once again dramatically speaking, a singer facing the audience directly is an unacceptable breach of the "fourth wall" except when a calculated special effect is called for where the whole point is a breach of that normally inviolable barrier as breaching that barrier except for such special effect purposes tends to break the Reality, the Reality consisting of what's transpiring onstage which Reality the fourth wall exists to contain and protect from acknowledgment of the stage and intrusion from the outside. If opera singers (and opera directors) learn, understand — understand in their bones — and put into practice those two cardinal rules, then acting in opera will be more than halfway home to becoming as fully natural and convincing as first-rate acting is in the spoken theater. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.