Discussion on Characterisation from ‘Opera Talk’ on Facebook

Facebook Conversation about Characterisation from the group ‘Opera Talk’ on 21st May 2012

(Reproduced with permission from participants)

Hannah Moodie Donna Annas, can anyone help? Having been to a really fascinating acting workshop on Sunday, one of the things that came out of it was creating a back story for your character that stems back to early childhood. I’ve had a root around on the net, but I haven’t found a great deal of material on her really. How do other people go about creating their characters?

Kirstin Sharpin I look at everything a character says to or about every other character in the opera, and at everything any other character says about them. Then I look at similar real lives if I can, to understand the context, and after that, if necessary, come up with something imaginary, starting the process with the things I know, and adding onto them. Sometimes the music is helpful, sometimes less so.

Anna is one of the most enigmatic characters in opera, though – not much to go on, really, so more imagination required! Some directors’ ‘concepts’ mean you have to shift your ideas a bit, and others have very definite ideas about characters within a piece, but I always think it’s good to have figured out who your character is, especially if performing arias/excerpts.

Hannah Moodie Thanks Kirstin, yeah I think I’ll have to make up a fair bit in my head! Does anyone know if we have more on her from the Don Juan legends? I’m only doing non mi dir at the moment but it’d be good to know her a bit when I take her to audition!

Kirstin Sharpin There’s nothing specific in the Don Juan stories that I’ve ever found. She’s an archetype, but a thoroughly fictional character, I think.

Penny Shaw Donna Anna. Guilt. That is the clue to her character. She was enjoying being kissed/seduced until she pulled herself together and screamed for help, causing the death of her Father.

She can’t forgive herself for feeling those unwanted sexual urges, that attraction to DG, the pheromones, or whatever, that make her recognise him when he approaches her. Catholic guilt. Back story, lots of being good and going to church and not much else. Lovely character having a really bad day, that’s my take on her! Good luck!

Hannah Moodie Thanks Penny!

Kirstin Sharpin I’d add to that list guilt over not wanting to do her filial ‘duty’ by marrying Ottavio, and envy for Elvira’s apparent freedom. For me, it comes down to what happened before the opera – whether you think she was complicit in DG getting into her room, if there was just flirting/kissing or more, if it was consensual or rape, did he leave/she scream before, during or after??? Etc…

Hannah Moodie I’ve been reading a chapter on various other interpretations of Don Juan and how they’ve portrayed her. It really varies, I guess you just have to make your own decision! I’m sensing that she is marrying because of status, but has passion for DG that she means to suppress out of duty, and with the death of her father too she is massively confused. Otherwise why would she put it off another year after he goes to hell?!

Kirstin Sharpin I’d say she’s marrying because she really hasn’t any choice – in that period in Spain, you were either a daughter, a wife or a nun. That’s one of the things that makes Elvira so unusual (and so desperate!). I always think Ottavio is probably quite a bit older, and ultra-conventional.

My feeling is that Anna’s instincts (well-repressed) are anything but conventional, but she knows she has to play by the rules or she loses everything. A year… If Ottavio’s of her father’s generation, for example, perhaps he won’t last that long and she’ll truly be free! Just my take on her!

Austin Gunn Or you could do what most sopranos do and just look miserable and scream a lot!

Anastasia Witts I am indeed no Donna Anna, I am Elvira through and through, if I could manage. But DG is one of my absolute favourite operas and I have put a lot of thinking into it. I can contribute to this by telling you that there is a different perspective on Don Giovanni altogether.

In Russian tradition, where I originate, DG is created first by Pushkin and then carried through the whole history of Russian prose and poetry as a free spirit, as a preserver of everlasting thirst for freedom, for life and liberty in a stagnated, stereotyped society.

His passion for women is genuine and true (well, it might be a different one tomorrow, but for tonight this one is the only one).

Listen to Tchaikovsky’s take on DG’s serenade and compare it to Mozart’s, how much more passionate it is, more passionate than seductive:

Pushkin’s Donna Anna is different too, much purer, much more honest. To me Mozart’s Donna Anna is a very calculating, material girl. Don Ottavio is a nice but boring man, his affections are secure and flattering, but after having known DG’s she is not likely to be fired up by them. Still secure and guaranteed marriage is possible ahead, unless someone else will turn up, slightly better.

Kate Flowers I have been fascinated by this debate which originally posed the question of the back story as being essential – I think one always has to remember that as singing actors we have not just the librettist’s view of the characters and their situations but most importantly we have a composer’s view. Then of course we have our director not to mention the designer and our conductor.

Laura Hudson ‎…. and eventually the singer is allowed to express their own opinion!

Tony Rundle If you have a good director 🙂

Hannah Moodie Agreed Kate, but to sing the aria for an audition I won’t have an opinion from a director or conductor. Surely if I am not armed with a detailed interpretation I can’t portray a character, or an ability to act enough to be worked with? Once the role is mine the different aspects of the character might be discussed in more detail. Also, the last opera I was in, which was amateur, there were no directions given, she just let me do my thang! I didn’t feel like I knew what I was doing and I’m sure it ended up a bit wooden!

Kate Flowers (After a technical glitch)..AS I WAS SAYING – Therefore our job when performing a sung role is so much different than when we are playing a straight role – even without directorial intervention – we have a host of other material from which we can add flesh to the bones of our characters.

And whilst absolutely agree with the premise that to create a complete, believable human being we need to know our characters as well as we know ourselves – past, present AND future hopes and aspirations – I personally do not always go down the dry intellectual route that others have spoken about here.

As an actress I always ask what is my character here for? What is the story she has to tell within the story as a whole- what is her journey during this part of her life – how will it affect others – how will affect my character’s future. We as human beings are so much more than our pasts, presents and futures – what makes us human is our connection or non-connection with others – their perceptions of us- we are also different things to different people.

We personally can only work with the palette we have, the palette we were born with and which we have added to through our personal journey, the treasures chest of memories which we need to use shamelessly – and our imaginations. Hannah Moodie, you say that you were given no “directions” and were left to do your own thing – well – if you are completely inhabiting your role, then whatever your character does on stage will be right and no “direction” is necessary – believe me it is not just in the amateur world where a director will allow you to “be” rather than impose.

That is certainly the way I have been trained and how I work with the singers who come to us at Co-Opera Co. Remember what Ryland was saying about observation – constantly watching the rest of the human race and adding to your personal palette every day. All this and so much more is the very reason why I started Co-Opera Co. – to help singers become more than just singers but true singing actors.

Kirstin Sharpin I absolutely agree with you, Kate, about the importance of looking at a character’s role within the plot and above almost anything else, their relationships with the other characters – hence why I start with looking at everything said by and about the character, to figure out how they relate to others personages on the stage.

I do, however, particularly when looking at an excerpt or aria, find context -of both the setting and the composer and librettist – very helpful in understanding why characters behave as they do. Outwith the context of a full production set in a period other than that originally intended, it seems (to me) unwise to view a character only through modern eyes and judge their intentions/actions from today’s perspective.

For this reason, I often find historical and literary source material very productive -probably a habit I picked up in non-operatic acting, but a habit I’m quite happy to bring into my approach to singing as well. 🙂

Hannah Moodie Agree with both of you. I’m still on the early stages of trying to realise the character, so just trying to look at who she might have been. I have a wealth of possibilities to look into here, thanks to all of the advice from above! I’ve never looked at a character in so much depth, it really is fascinating – keep ’em coming!!! x

Kate Flowers Absolutely Kirstin – I agree wholeheartedly – Tacitus has been my bible on many an occasion when creating classical roles from Dido to Poppea – and I agree that we have to have to expand our view beyond our own limited experience – but that in the end is the palette we have to work with. What I am just really trying to say- going back to the question Hannah asked about creating a back story for a character as discussed in an acting workshop – is that as singing actors, as opposed to when we are playing in a straight play, so much of the character is in the music as well as the text – as you say, not just our own, but in the whole piece – and whilst, when applicable, it is also interesting and sometimes invaluable to read other sources out with the score – the score should always be the starting point.

For instance if we look at Rossini’s treatment of the young Rosina and Mozart’s view of her as a Countess – we have two very different views of the same person – albeit at different stages in her life – so yes by all means also look at the original play and the political climate in which it was written and Beaumarchais’ personal reasons for writing the trilogy in the first place BUT when singing the Countess – everything we need to build our character is there in the score – the whole score – just as it was for the first Countess.

And that is something I also think is vitally important – for us to view the score as if fresh from the composer’s hand as if we are the first singer of the role – ink still wet on the page – only when I know an opera inside out will I then listen to other people’s interpretation. Difficult sometimes when one has so many wonderful interpretations already in the brain but nevertheless vital if we are to own the piece ourselves and not just recreate someone else’s interpretation – usually badly. x

Hannah Moodie Good point, when I sang Michaela I didn’t listen to any other versions until I knew my part backwards because I wanted my interpretation of the music to be fresh. I’m just so new to the acting bit, it seems to be a bit of a minefield!! Interestingly they used Rosina and the Countess as a case in point on Sunday, giving the Countess’s relationship with her husband a bit more depth, and her change from the girl to the lady of the house. They talked about how this might make the still young Countess feel, amongst other things.

Lindsay Bramley This is probably so obvious it doesn’t need saying, but the first thing I always do is take the score completely apart – not just “my” bits but the music of the other characters too, to get a really clear reading of how the composer saw the character. Once I’ve analysed how everything for him/her has been put together and how it compares with the musical language of the other characters, I’ve got a good starting point for why they say what they say and how they say it. Then I can start thinking about how they got there!

Lindsay Bramley It’s interesting to think about the conventions of behaviour/perception of behaviour that are contemporary with the work’s composition, and also of when it is set, to see if there are any dichotomies there. (And that’s before we get into the minefield of updated productions, which can be fabulous or baffling depending on how well it’s all been thought through!)

Julian Porter This is probably presumptuous of me, but I would say that if the composer / librettist didn’t actually provide any additional material about the character and there are no, as Lindsay says, obvious cultural conventions from the time, then the raw material of the text and the music is clearly all they thought you needed to go on, so everything you need should be in there.

For example, in the case of Die Frau Ohne Schatten, we have Hoffmannsthal’s fascinating ‘Erzahlung’, a kind of novelisation of the opera, which adds loads of useful background material that didn’t make it into the libretto. So that clearly needs to be taken into account. But for, say, Capriccio, the text is all we have to go on. If one needs to create a back story for the character, is that not saying that their characterisation is inadequate?

Marion Olsen Finding what is the truth of the words and the music, and particularly the music is the main challenge – so that the audience meets the cameo of the present stage situation – however every cameo of a situation – for example you walk down the street and meet someone and interact ‘in the present’, that present will have a past and a future. You will not, of course, be privy to the past or the future unless you have been present at those or have information about them – but they are still there. As a character in an opera your character surely embodies their past in order to get to the truth of the present. Though here I could be accused of getting tangled up in words at the expense of ‘just doing it!’.

Marion Olsen Or maybe we do really have to be utterly trusting – take the character in the here and how, find all the clues as they are in the score and the libretto – and leave the understanding of the character to the audience as they perceive it on the night. They are then left to ponder all the multiple possibilities as they reflect after the show. To be honest, that is how I approach recital work.

Trying to find the truth of the character of each song through the words and music ‘in the present’ as it were, and letting that tell the story without ‘me’ getting in the way. I think this could be one of the pleasures I should have spoken of in relation to my own singing – because this is the pleasure. Because there isn’t the back story I continue to be surprised because the present reveals things to me at different performances of the one song.

As I look at the clip I passed on below of Fritz Wunderlich I am reminded that my response to that exquisite rendition from The Magic Flute is of him totally embodying the present – but the score was Mozart – and everything is written in the score for us to take a lifetime to find!

Marion Olsen Oh dear – that was an unintelligible mouthful that will tie you in knots to read – go have a coffee instead!


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