During an early staging rehearsal for Figaro, after I finished up a scene I sat back down next to a member of the cover cast. A singer I’ve admired for a while, she said, “So... how long did you dance?”
It seems my dancing days are still evident, not just when I’m dancing, but in the general way I “act” on stage. I’m not talking about having a good carriage or being graceful; she could see my “inner dancer” in the way I flitted about on stage, in the way I was always moving. In this case, not necessarily the best thing.
She went on to talk of her own experience (she also had a dance background), including the time a director encouraged her to rein in her physicality, to explore a physical stillness that would allow her voice to do more of the work telling the story. With opera, we can trust the composer (if s/he’s a good one) to help us express character, including silliness or flightiness; we don’t necessarily need to do it all with the body. For example, it was amazing to watch and listen as Susan Graham worked her way through the Iphigenie rehearsals. Talk about acting with the voice! She is a wonderful actor, period, but the emotions that come through her voice as she stands there and sings can blow your mind. She’s not “showing” us how she feels; she’s feeling it, and her voice is expressing it. She simply lets her voice deliver the emotions that Gluck captured in his music. It’s inspiring.
Granted, Barbarina is a flighty girl, probably a bit high-strung. Think of the line from Act I, when the Count describes finding Cherubino in Barbarina’s house: he describes her as being paurosa fuor dell'uso, “flustered more than usual.” So it was interesting to think about economy of movement, especially thinking ahead to performing Susanna. Barbarina’s aria was a good exercise is doing less, in letting the anxiety of the music tell the story: minor key, undulating triple meter, those repeated c's in the orchestra. It's all right there. Of course, in the recit after the aria, she is quick to try to hide her anxiety, back to her flighty ways while talking with Figaro and Marcellina.
In another early rehearsal, I noted how well Terfel handled the physical interactions that were blocked. I was kneeling down on the floor, looking for the pin, and when he came to lift me up by the arm, he barely touched me. His voice and the rest of his body acted as if he were taking out his frustrations on me (“What do you know about these things?!”), but his hand was practically limp. A grimace on my face and a movement of my arm as if trying to get out of a grip, and voila! Stage violence.
As I described in an earlier post, he changed up this blocking one night, but all he did was touch the back of my neck. It was up to me to (quickly!) figure out what he was doing (lifting me up by the scruff of my neck) and react accordingly. It was fun to struggle against his non-existent grip, to make it look like I was a kid getting dragged off to the principal’s office.
There were all kinds of interactions like this in Figaro: the Count pulling Cherubino by his ear, various “romantic” entanglements, Susanna’s slaps of Figaro, and the physical face-off between the Count and Figaro in Act III. Simon also did a huge pratfall every night, taking a swinging kick at Bryn and going flying. Fantastic physical comedy, focused and carefully planned.
This post may seem to contradict a lot of what I wrote in the previous post, but I’m pretty sure it’s all of a piece. I’m not saying I need to be more still on stage by being more cerebral, less physical; I just need to focus the energy. Trust the music. Be present in my body, tell the story with my voice - which is part of my body - and not with my head. As always, it’s a balance.