Training opera singers to be singing actors has often been regarded as a difficult task. Psychological realism does not effectively serve the genre; traditional techniques do not adapt well consistently to the unique demands placed on opera performers. Such practices usually result in a separation of music and acting, creating performances that are untruthful, forced and potentially harmful to the artist.
There is also the obstacle of operatic tradition: “this is the way the role is performed”; “rules,” such as “do not move as it is distracting”; “movement interferes with proper vocal technique” are additional arguments. Moreover, singers often receive little to no formal instruction other than perhaps observing a director’s demonstration.
The Michael Chekhov approach to theatre training, however, requires no adaptation in its application to music-theatre. The tenets of the technique can be expressed fully in musical form, which facilitates a more integrated and richer performance approach. By focusing on a vocabulary rooted in music, the Michael Chekhov technique is invaluable in the training of young opera singers. These musical expressions can be written and/or drawn directly into the musical score.
Actors working within the spoken theatre generally learn text as a solo endeavor; in opera, the process of learning text (and music) typically occurs separately in collaboration with a coach. This extra step in the rehearsal process can integrate what the singer is doing in the studio with a coach by making preliminary character choices. Physicalizing these choices already in the (initial) music phase of a rehearsal period will allow music and movement to be integrated at a much earlier phase in the overall rehearsal process. Invariably this will make the transition from music rehearsals to the staging rehearsals much easier. The following is a basic chart for application of the technique to musical performance/expression:
Young singers tend to regard the throat as the source for impulse for their work as opposed to what Michael Chekhov describes as Ideal Center. The result is the “singing-head” effect, where the performance is concentrated from the neck up creating a disconnect with the singer’s body. Another common trap is that the singer will attempt gestures (albeit “habitual” gesturing) resulting in acting from the shoulders and/or elbows. This inevitably leads to a high level of tension potentially (and usually) inhibiting the vocal technique. By engaging a physical approach to the character, singers will reconnect the voice to the rest of the body, limiting physical (and vocal) tension and expressing full presence of character. In a training scenario, this aspect of the technique must be addressed first. Chekhov describes Ideal Center:
Think of your imaginary center as a source of inner activity and power within your body. . . . Let the sensation of strength, harmony and well-being penetrate the whole body. Let the power which flows from the imaginary center within your chest and leads you through space precede the movement itself; that is, first send out the impulse for the movement, and the, an instant later, do the movement itself. After the movement is accomplished, do not cut short the stream of power generated from the center, but let it flow and radiate for a while beyond the boundaries of your body and into the space around you. Like a musician who can play only on a well-tuned instrument, so you will have the feeling that your ‘ideal’ body enables you to make the greatest possible us of it, to give it all kinds of characteristic features demanded by the part you are working upon. (2002: 7)
These three steps—sending out an impulse, executing the movement and allowing the movement to resonate (radiate) from the body—are described as the artistic frame. The artistic frame is the blueprint for all movement. Lenard Petit defines this more succinctly as conscious movement (46). He states that “we do not use it in performance because it takes too much attention, and our expression will appear stilted” (46). In the world of opera, however, the artistic frame brings new life to a performance acting as a physical (harmonic) expression of the music and text. In many cases, the composer has left clues in the music for the singer-actor to discover something of the character’s physical life. For example, Mozart is clear in his musical portrayal of Leporello in the opening scene of Don Giovanni.
“Notte e giorno faticar” (Leporello—Feruccio Furlanetto; Don Giovanni—Bryn Terfel;
Donna Anna—Renee Fleming; Il Commendatore—Sergei Koptchak)
Metropolitan Opera (2000) | James Levine, Conductor | Franco Zeffirelli, Production Design
The text of a libretto is, as in the spoken theatre, a critical component in characterization in opera. But for a singer—and the audience—the melody adds a new layer of expression more immediate than words, particularly since the text is often in a foreign language. The three building blocks of text, melody and physical expression can all work in harmony together or can—at times—be expressed in contrast or polarity with one another. Composers will often have a character speak a text that is contradicted by the subtext of his/her melodic line. How does this conflict manifest itself in the character’s physical expression? Singers who are working exclusively on music in the studio can begin exploring the physicalization of the character simply by engaging the body, using the basic tenets of the technique.
The most immediate tool that a singer can employ is the idea of Sensations (sometimes referred to as “The Three Sisters”). Lenard Petit writes: “Just before his death, Chekhov began to experiment with sensations as archetypes. He discovered that there are three primary archetypal sensations” (56). Petit describes the three archetypal sensations as floating, falling and balancing. Furthermore, he describes the feelings that are connected to the sensations:
Floating holds all the positive feelings we might experience . . . sensations of joy, pride, love, freedom, hope, etc. The second sensation, falling, holds all negative feelings we might experience . . . sensations of sorrow, doubt, confusion, panic, despair move in a downward direction. Balancing . . . has its accompanying sensations of calm, collected reserve, power, sobriety, etc. (56)
A singer can experiment with the three sensations, even while standing in front of a music stand, by mimicking the melodic line or intentionally engaging in counterpoint (or contradiction), betraying the melodic line. In other words, singers would float as the line ascends and fall as the line descends. Engaging in polarity, however, creates a unique physical conflict within the character (that is, falling on an ascending line). Papageno, the bird-catcher in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, is desperate to maintain his balance in the Act I aria Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja. But, in spite of his characteristic ascending bird call, he succumbs to falling.
The Magic Flute—Mozart
“Der Vogelfänger bin ich ja” (Papageno—Simon Keenlyside)
Royal Opera House—Covent Garden (2003) | Sir Colin Davis, Conductor | David McVicar, Stage Director
Lenard Petit goes one step further, exploring the sensations of front and back movement (59). This is of particular importance to the singer-actor, since melody is a forward-moving thing, emanating from the singer’s throat. By redirecting the melody to move backward, a very peculiar sensation will usually occur within the singer. Petit explains these two sensations:
The sensation of fear is backward moving, a retreat or flight mechanism that is quite easy to engage, and produces a curious effect of doubt, timidity, apprehension, concern, etc. The forward moving sensation is one of a very active and sure will, confident, expectant, assured, resolute, etc. (59)
By exercising the three archetypal sensations of floating, falling and balancing, in addition to the added sensations of moving forward and backward, a singer has a simple yet powerful tool that can be applied already in the studio. Experimenting with polarity can enhance this work and better prepare the singer-actor for the transition to the rehearsal hall.
The next step in exploring the physical life of a character would be to work with the Qualities of Movement, another tool that can physicalize the melodic line. This work builds on top of the concept of Sensations. While the singer may choose to fall on a descending melodic line, he/she would then choose how the character falls using one of the qualities of molding, floating, flying and radiating (Chekhov 2002: 8-12). One should note that in his book, On the Technique of Acting, Chekhov changes the notion of floating to flowing (1991: 45-46). To help clarify these concepts, the four qualities of movement can be explained using elements in nature:
Those acquainted with Rudolf Steiner’s Eurythmy and his Speech-Formation will easily recognize in the four suggested movements four elements: earth, water, air, fire, which play such an important part in Steiner’s method of artistic education. (Chekhov 1991: 47)
Chekhov describes molding movement “as if you mold the air, or even a thicker, heavier substance, around your body” (1991: 45); or “like a sculptor, I mold the space surrounding me. In the air around me I leave forms which appear to be chiselled by the movements of my body” (2002: 8). A singer who is engaged in a line that is described in musical terms as schleppend (dragging) or stendando (labored, heavy) might engage in a falling motion with a quality of molding. When further enhanced with the imagery of earth or clay, this tool can be more effective by having an immediate impact on the singer’s work. A good example of this approach is the aria Porgi amor sung by the Countess in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.
Le Nozze di Figaro—Mozart
“Porgi amor” (Countess—Cheryl Studer)
Vienna State Opera (1991) | Claudio Abbado, Conductor | Jonathan Miller, Director
Of all the Qualities of Movement, Radiating is the most critical in singing. Chekhov describes Radiating by having actors “imagine that invisible rays stream from your movements into space, in that direction of the movement itself. Send out these rays from your chest, arms and hands, from your whole body at once, in the direction you have moved” (1991: 46-47).
This idea also aligns perfectly with Lenard Petit’s notion of the Forward Sensation. Singers tend to radiate only with the voice as it is released from the larynx; but, by honouring the resonances that occur in the whole body, sound can be radiated from head to toe. This will allow for a vocal expression from the entire body moving forward or backward, falling or floating.
Rhythm and Tempo
Once the singer-actor has explored Sensations and Qualities of Movement, attention to rhythm and tempo should be investigated next. Executing the qualities in different tempi and rhythms that range from staccato to legato will add yet another dimension to the physical life of the character. Lenard Petit describes them, stating “staccato is quick movement with sudden stops and starts. Legato is slow (not slow motion) and has no clear stops. It might stop, but then again it might not stop” (38). Having Mozart’s Don Giovanni engage in the movement mode of flying (Fin ch’han dal vino) in a staccato manner will create a very specific choice-approach for the singer-actor that could be labelled as playful. Engaging in flying with a legato approach will create a very different result and might be described as more sinister.
There are multiple expressions beyond just staccato and legato within the music vocabulary such as grave (very slow), vivace (lively), adagio (moderately slow) and presto (fast) (Cave 2011). Singers can mimic the tempo markings or—as always—engage in the polarity of these markings.
“Fin ch’han dal vino” (Don Giovanni—Samuel Ramey)
Salzburger Festspiele (1987) | Herbert von Karajan, Conductor | Michael Hampe, Stage Director
Tempo can be expressed internally as well as externally. Inner/Outer tempo is another valuable tool. According to Chekhov,
The inner tempo can be defined as a quick or slow change of thoughts, images, feelings, will impulses, etc. The outer tempo expresses itself in quick or slow actions and speech. Contrasting outer and inner tempos can run simultaneously on the stage. . . . An outer slow tempo can run concurrently with a quick inner tempo, or vice versa. The effect of two contrasting tempos running simultaneously on the stage unfailingly makes a strong impression on an audience.
You should not confuse slow tempo with passiveness or a lack of energy in the actor himself. Whatever slow tempo you use on the stage, yourself as an artist must always be active. On the other hand, the quick tempo of your performance must not become an obvious haste or an unnecessary psychological and physical tension. (2002: 75)
Lenard Petit further explains:
Tempo is a clear gauge of a character’s core. There are two types of tempo to work with, inner and outer. Inner tempo is the speed in which the inner life moves. A slow thinker, or a quick hot feeler, or a sluggish but determined will: all that begins inside the character. Outer tempo belongs to what is called business, the physical doing of things. We can practise many of the movement exercises and vary the consequences by changing the tempo. (38)
Returning to Don Giovanni’s aria, an outer tempo of stillness and an inner tempo of a racing heartbeat will be in direct contrast to a manic outer tempo and inner tempo of stillness. The baritone should of course experiment with both to discover the most effective character choice-approach.
Chekhov discusses the concept of staccato/legato as it relates to speech sounds in connection with Rudolf Steiner’s concept of Speech Formation and Eurythmy (Steiner 1977: 11-12). This idea is of particular use to singers of opera since they must more often than not speak in a foreign language. Experimenting with vowels and consonants in staccato/legato as they relate to the melodic line can have a powerful effect on the dramatic line. Of course, the singer will find typically legato on the sustaining of vowels, with consonants taking on a more staccato (even percussive) quality. But, there is polarity within these two tendencies: namely, the opportunity for percussive vowels and legato consonants (specifically, but not limited, to the fricatives). While this notion does not excuse the singer-actor from completely and thoroughly understanding the text, it can help serve as a conduit, connecting the text—once again—to the physical life of the character.
The vowels are closely connected with our feelings and are more intimate for us than the consonants. The vowels, therefore, are naturally a more suitable means of expressing lyrical, spiritual themes and intimate experiences, whereas the consonants sound more dramatic, more heavy and earthy. They are, as it were, imitating the outer world, whereas the vowels express primarily the human feelings. The vowels are the music and painting of the human speech; the consonants are its plastic power. (Chekhov 1991: 75)
Since singers are focusing more intently on vowel production, Chekhov made the following statement specific to vowels:
Let us take, for example, the sound of the letter “a” in “father.” What Gesture lies behind it, creating it and giving it its power and audible content? Imagine that we open our arms widely and stand with our legs apart and follow with our feelings this Gesture, trying to experience it strongly. What do we experience? A kind of astonishment, awe, admiration, and similar feelings. What do we do while speaking the sound “ah”? We open our souls for questioning, admiration, and absorption of the impressions coming to us from within ourselves or from our surroundings in life. Even the vocal chords and mouth open, or have the tendency to open themselves widely while pronouncing the sound “ah.” (Chekhov 1991: 75-76)
The Queen of the Night’s aria (Der Hölle Rache) from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is a good example of how the rhythm of speech and melody can enhance characterization. A physical connection between character and text is obligatory in this aria. Chekhov continues with attention to consonants:
The consonant sound “s” expressing the connection of the human being to the outer world rather than the intimate inner life of man has a calming power, which brings to a poised state what was in movement. . . . We experience its magical character by moving our arms and hands from below upward in wavelike, winding, snakelike, sharp movements in which one arm and hand follow the other with little delay. (1991:76)
Having singers (particularly young singers) ask these questions about the text while still in the studio creates a strong physical connection between the mouth and the body. Again, when this work is conducted during the musical/coaching phase, the singer is better prepared to engage in staging (rehearsal) work.
The Magic Flute—Mozart
Scene & “Der Hölle Rache” (Queen of the Night—Diana Damrau; Pamina—Dorothea Röschmann)
Royal Opera House—Covent Garden (2003) | Sir Colin Davis, Conductor | David McVicar, Stage Director
Yet another immediate tool that can aid the singer in the studio is the association between dynamics and the character’s physical journey. Dynamics refers to the increase (crescendo) or decrease (decrescendo) in volume. The Chekhov equivalent to dynamics is the idea of expansion and contraction. Lenard Petit explains this concept looking to nature as an example:
Two dynamic forces that impact the natural world are fundamental principles of human interaction. It is very easy to see the effects of expansion and contraction in the world that surrounds us. When we observe the differences between winter and summer as two polarities, we will see that to move from the depth of winter to the height of summer is a slow and steady expansion, while the reverse is true, a steady contraction from summer to winter. Everything responds thus, and all creatures understand the dynamics of growing and receiving. (21)
Petit goes on to say that “a physical acting technique cannot really be taught without working on this artistic principle. It must be investigated by the student actor, explored, tested and applied as much as possible. It is so useful and practical” (22). Indeed, this tool should be practiced by young singers as a means of character development. It can begin in the studio to be then maintained as spatial awareness with the rest of the ensemble in the rehearsal hall. Chekhov describes the notion of expansion and contraction with the archetypal Psychological Gestures of open and close:
Open yourself completely, spreading wide your arms and hands, your legs far apart. Remain in this expanded position for a few seconds. Imagine that you are becoming larger and larger. Now close yourself by crossing your arms upon your chest, putting your hands on your shoulders. Kneel on one or both knees, bending your head low. Imagine that you are becoming smaller and smaller, curling up, contracting as though you wanted to disappear bodily within yourself, and that the space around you is shrinking. (Chekhov 2002: 6)
By honouring a dynamic marking of crescendo, the singer-actor can expand/open with the increase of volume, following the melodic line; or he/she can engage in polarity, contradicting the crescendo of the melody by contracting/closing. A wonderful musical example occurs in the Act II finale of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. In a buffo (comedic) finale, where multiple characters are singing individualized lines simultaneously, the entire ensemble gradually crescendos as a unified whole. The Count would likely mimic this crescendo and expand/open as the finale continues to its climax. Susanna, however, might contract/close as the finale gains momentum in contradiction with the musical progression.
Le Nozze di Figaro—Mozart
Act II Finale—Part 2 (Bryn Terfel—Figaro, Alison Hagley—Susanna, Rodney Gilfry—Il Conte, Hillevi Martinpelto—La Contessa,
Susan McCulloch—Marcellina, Julian Clarkson—Antonio, Carlos Feller—Bartolo and Francis Egerton—Basilio)
Théâtre du Châtelet (1993) | The Monteverdi Choir | The English Baroque Soloists (on period instruments)
John Eliot Gardiner, Conductor | Jean-Louis Thamin, Stage Director
The concept of Atmosphere is unique in music-theatre as it becomes a musical compass to navigate character creation. This is the starting place for all actors according to Chekhov and certainly not unique to music-theatre; spoken theatre must also create atmosphere but music adds another layer, another presence within the whole performance. An immediate example that demonstrates the power of a musical atmosphere can be found in the overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
While expansion and contraction exploration typically begins in the studio, this process can carry over into the rehearsal hall and serve as a bridge to ensemble work. At this point, the actors are typically ready to begin working with Chekhov’s concept of atmosphere. This is one of the more complex tenets of the technique but Chekhov explains that “atmospheres for the artist are comparable to the different keys in music. They are a concrete means of expression. The performer must listen to them just as he listens to music” (1991: 27). Given the foundation in dynamics, Chekhov’s more detailed explanation provides a natural progression from the studio to the stage:
Experiencing, for instance, an atmosphere of happiness, you will find that its will awakens in you the desire to expand, extend, open, spread yourself, burst forth, gain space. Now take the atmosphere of depression or grief. Would not the will of this atmosphere be completely the reverse? Would you not, now, feel the urge to contract, close, even to diminish yourself? (Chekhov 2002: 50)
Atmosphere is also supported by work with the Sensations:
For example, the atmosphere of disaster is downward moving on the body, the air itself seems to be falling heavily upon the shoulders and head. This awareness became a real key to finding a reliable approach to working with atmosphere. Returning to the scene, we took out the name of the feeling, or atmosphere, and replaced it with the imagination that the space could move upon the body. This became freeing and somewhat easier to work with. The actors were no longer seduced into playing the mood of a disaster, but were asked simply to react to the space moving downwards heavily upon them. (Petit 82)
By making the music in opera a “living thing”, almost as another character within the space, it heightens the actor’s sensitivity to its power. As an atmosphere, music envelops the ensemble with a presence that can be likened to natural elements: “It is no more difficult than imagining the air filled with light, dust, fragrance, smoke, mist, and so on” (Chekhov 1991: 32). The actors must walk the space allowing their bodies to have a psychophysical response to the musical atmosphere set forth by the composer. By identifying the corresponding sensation that is aroused within the actor, the music can serve a faithful antagonist. The music will not only just serve as a background or “mood” for the scene, but rather become a powerful force that physically engages the character.
Attention must be given to explore each new atmosphere as it surfaces and fades throughout an operatic piece. The atmosphere established in Susanna’s Act IV aria (Deh vieni, non tardar) in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is in stark atmospheric contrast to the farcical elements that surround this otherwise quiet, introspective moment.
Le Nozze di Figaro—Mozart
“Deh, vieni, non tardar” (Susanna—Diana Damrau)
Teatro alla Scala, 2006 | Gerard Korsten, Conductor | Giorgio Strehler, Stage Director
Navigating the ever-shifting atmospheric landscape of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte can create a much richer, deeper expression of this complex work.
By utilizing the tenets of the Michael Chekhov technique, singers will find a more streamlined, efficient approach to their work. Additional foundation concepts within the technique should be included in the rehearsal process; for example, the notion of the Four Brothers (Feelings of Ease, Beauty, Whole/Entirety, Form) is also relevant but require no specialized adaptation to opera. Integrating these ideas into character building that occurs at the beginning of the rehearsal process, both in the practice room and the studio, will make the transition into staging rehearsals much easier. Ultimately, the performance will result in a more individualized expression of character that is potentially richer and deeper.
The tools outlined thus far provide a foundation for more advanced exploration to continue. The application of the Michael Chekhov technique to operatic acting has proven to be a powerful tool in the training and performance practice of independent singing actors.
NOTE: The author of this article does not claim copyright or ownership of the music played in the video excerpts listed above. All copyrighted content remains property of their respective owners.
Cave, Charles. “Tempos in Order from Slowest to Fastest.” MuseScore, 21 Mar. 2011. https://musescore.org/node/9864.
Chekhov, Michael. On the Technique of Acting. Ed. Gordon, Mel. Preface and Afterword by Mala Powers. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 1991.
—. To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting. New York: Routledge. 2002.
Petit, Lenard. The Michael Chekhov Handbook: For the Actor. New York: Routledge. 2010.
*James Haffner (MFA/AD; University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music) is a Professor of Opera at the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music. A Fulbright scholar, he has taught workshops and masterclasses at Stanford University, Oberlin Conservatory, Bay View Theatre Institute and North Central Michigan College Shakespeare Intensive as well as the 2015 National Opera Association convention. James is an Associate Teacher with the Great Lakes Michael Chekhov Consortium.
Copyright © 2017 James Haffner
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