General approaches to the characterisation of a role
Throughout this project I considered how to gain an extensive understanding of a character. My supposition was that a thorough understanding of an approach to characterisation, would lead to the confidence and knowledge which underpins an excellent and full characterisation appropriate to the setting (whether in a concert or the opera).
Books on characterisation from the theatre world uncovered the complexity of this task. Stanislavski’s ‘method’ which has been much adapted over time by Lee Strasbourg and others, asks the actor to create a ‘fully rounded character and a coherent emotional journey before he goes on stage’. A contrasting view is to use imagination, with no need to have personally experienced the situation or experience of the character. Nick Moseley, in arguing that Stanislavski is outdated, presents a more collaborative approach to characterisation, reacting to other performers.
In terms of characterisation an aria for a concert, there is no possibility of reacting to others, although it is possible to react to an imagined other character on stage, such as in the aria Batti Batti, when the singer can imagine Masetto on stage with them. This can sometimes be a challenge, because without the actual character present, there can be a tendency to fix one’s gaze on a particular spot where the imagined character is supposed to be, and to not use the whole space. Instead of imagining a character on stage with them, an alternative approach could be that the performer spend time considering the character’s interior emotional journey.
I have found a mixture of approaches useful. I sometimes choose to summon a personal memory to help identify with a character (along the method acting route), or to use pure imagination, particularly for fantastical roles which bear little relation to modern life.
To support analysis of interview material and thick description observing performances, I attended an audition workshop with actress and theatre director, Annee Blott. I sang the Countess’ aria Porgi Amor from The Marriage of Figaro. As well as ensembles, the role comprises two main arias, Porgi Amor and Dove Sono, both of which are traditionally sung with no other characters on stage, as they express the Countess’s internal feelings. In terms of the character, she is only young, (assuming she is the same character as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, and is in love with her husband, whose philandering ways only hurt her feelings, causing her to contemplate suicide in Porgi Amor.
One of the most interesting findings from the workshop was I felt under no vocal pressure to sing ‘perfectly’, as working with a theatre director meant that she was not focused on vocal technique. I felt able to fully focus on the required characterisation. I noted that some of the technical vocal issues that I would usually identify with this piece were not even present.
A useful exercise was to imagine that I was in the Countess’s bedroom. I was asked to describe furniture, flooring, and windows in detail. When walking into the performance space, imagining the Countess’s bedroom, I walked with more confidence and began the aria much more in character. It gave me different level of certainty about what the character would do, knowing where she is.
It was a little frustrating to take this aria to a workshop, and to find that there was still significant work to be done on the correct Italian pronunciation. There were some different ‘readings’ of the text by tutors, particularly around the Countess’ relationship with the Count. It was suggested that she was a little afraid of him, because he could physically harm her. It was suggested that this was why she was so fearful of his reaction to her and Susannah’s plotting against him. Having had my own ideas about the character, it was interesting, but at the same time, a little confusing to be given different ideas.
I felt that this was very much a declamatory aria as Elisabeth is singing it to the concert hall when alone, so she can express her true emotions freely. It could be said that it would not be that different when performed during the opera or in a concert, because in both contexts, she would be alone on stage.
In order to give the aria some interest, I tried a particular arm gesture near the beginning to greet the room on ‘Geliebter Raum’ but it looked terrible. On viewing the footage, it looked very stilted and turned into a bit of conducting (at 33 secs). Other footage revealed that I conduct a little with my torso/shoulder when unsure of the accompanist and/or the words!
This highlights to me that a thorough learning of the text must be achieved as quickly as possible, so that the focus can move beyond the conscious thought of recalling the text, to the narrative and drama of the aria.
I performed it during an opera concert in for Richmond Choral Society on 14th July at RichmondAdultCommunity College. I was pleased with my performance, although it seemed a bit too static. Perhaps a better quality of film would have shown my facial expressions and eyes more clearly, but it must be remembered, that in a big venue, subtleties are not easily understood by the audience due to the distance between singer and audience.
Before watching the Barbara Frittolli youtube clip, I would imagined her as a very still character, not wishing to take up much space in the world. I worked on this piece with my Alexander Technique teacher. We worked on achieving even more stillness, even though I thought I was being still already. It felt liberating to be doing less, and it opened up a new possibility to do something else, if I wanted to, as there was more space which wasn’t being taken up with unconscious movement.
Although not in an actual concert, my performance was different enough from a staged production to enable to me contrast it with a staged performance. I decided to use my own performance as a comparison as I was unable to find the same singer performing this aria in both a staged performance and concert on Youtube, and I wanted to include it as I have studied it recently.
I was trying to characterise Liù as a very restrained, inhibited servant. The dramatic reason why she sings this aria is because she can’t bear it anymore; it’s an outburst of pure emotion, heart-felt and sincere.
On the whole, I was happy with the performance I gave, because it seemed that I portrayed the character, but there is room for more to be done. I think my gaze was too high at the beginning. I need to stop ‘playing to the dress circle’, and to inhabit the character more fully. At the back of my mind, I’m often thinking ‘will the audience see this bit’. Working through this project is showing that this kind of thinking is not the way to get the best, nuanced performance.
I have often struggled with my hand gestures, but in this piece I think they looked fairly good. However, I will try to ‘do’ even less in the future, as the expansive gestures don’t visually fit with my view of the character. The clasped hands show the low, servile status of Liù well.
I do have a tendency to ‘conduct’ with my shoulder, and although I’m working on this, I saw it creep into this performance at times. I also tend to keep my feet still, but move my body from my ankles, which results in swaying. I am trying to lose this affectation, because although it feels like I’m ‘doing’ something when I move in this way, I can see it looks rather distracting.
I tried open hands for the final ‘per pietà’, which worked, although can be problematical if they shake, due to nerves! Remembering that the aria is taken from a whole story, I looked up at the end, waiting for his response, which I think was much more inventive than ending with a lowered gaze.
Over the intervening weeks I had worked on the characterisation of this aria. Compared to the first video clip, I had stopped swaying from the ankles – a real triumph ! I also felt more embedded in the music, so my rubato and general narrative of the song are improved.
I did notice that when performing in a large space, my tendency is to raise my gaze to the whole room. This is a habit which I must quell in order to show that humility and suppressed passion that this character requires.
During the workshop, Linda Hirst pointed out that I must keep some volume and emotional expressiveness back for the end of the aria. I do have a tendency to put all my ‘goods in the shop window’ as she put it, meaning that I sing loudly and with full emotion at the outset of a piece, even if it is not needed for the characterisation. I need to remember that it is not about MY voice, but it is about the character, and communicating the character’s emotion to the audience.
It takes a lot of confidence not to ‘give your all’ at the outset of a piece because my assumption had been that singing with full voice at the beginning would show the audience the quality of my voice and help their enjoyment. From research, audience members, although expecting a certain level of vocal quality, they are not as interested in technical quality as much as they want to understand the story or emotion of an aria.
This is even more difficult in an audition or competition, when a panel may stop listening if the performance does not gain their attention at the outset. However, I can see that the more subtle performances are the more nuanced ones, where the needs of the characterisation come high above the needs of any individual singer.
My conclusion from this work on Signore Ascolta is that the character’s needs to take supremacy over the singer’s ego. If the aria requires a restrained approach, particularly at the beginning, then in order to show the audience the character, this must be adhered to. In a concert setting it is even more important to express the character, as the audience do not have the benefit of the rest of the narrative to get to know the character over a period of time.
I also thought it would be interesting to look at an extract of a fully staged version, to see how the character is communicated in this context.
Having created my idea of Liù as very still and servile, I was very surprised by this performance. The large scale, lavish production may require more of the performers visually than I would do in a smaller setting. Frittoli begins the aria with hand gestures that look like they come from Chinese dance.
Although a servant, she is physically above her master on the set, so she is able to use a downward gaze, signalling a servile relationship with him, whilst still being seen clearly by the audience. She uses a great deal more rubato and pauses than I do, almost indulging in the music (see 0.25mins). It seems that the best way of describing her performance in this particular production is ‘stylised’.
In my research, I have been considering how to achieve a full characterisation within the realm of realism, on which much of Western acting is based today. I have not considered any particular stylised methods as found in historical performances of baroque opera or non-Western music such as Chinese opera.
However, a certain amount of stylised gesture can work well in certain contexts, for example when the opera is set in a non-Western culture, such as Turandot or Aida. In a concert setting, a stylised approach may work even better as it helps the audience to know that the context of the aria is non-Western, even if they are not familiar with the particular stylised moves at any detailed level.
When Liù lowers her body at the end (2mins 27secs), it certainly helps the audience to understand her plea to him, not to undergo Turandot’s challenges. This is not something that could be done easily in concert, without the other characters, but works excellently in the staged opera.
This clip reminds us of the difficulties of characterising an aria fully when not within the whole opera. What works in a large production can look exaggerated on a smaller concert stage.
 Realism as originally developed by Constantin Stanislavski with others, and exemplified in the plays of Chekov and through the verismo operas of the 19th century.
I performed a short recital in preparation for my Assessed Recital at TrinityLabanCollege in the Recital Room on 27th June 2012. It was mixture of art song and opera:
Having watched the footage, I was able to identify that what ‘feels’ right when performing, does not necessarily look right. I identified that I have a tendency to lock my knees, and sway from my ankles. This felt like I was emoting and characterising, but did not achieve the look I wanted.
After the recital, I asked the audience for feedback:
|Element||Audience Feedback||Personal Reflection|
|Verbal introductions||These were enjoyed and well received.||These helped me to space the pieces, so I had time to think and prepare the character for the next piece.|
|Brief programme notes – no translations||People wanted translations, specifically for the German art song, despite the verbal introductions.||I was surprised that these were requested, but shows that the audience really want to understand the pieces.|
|Repertoire choices||Some comments about some of the pieces having a similar mood: particularly Widmung and My heart is like a singing bird.||It is hard to balance a programme for mood, genre, and language, along with ensuring that all the songs match the singer’s vocal ability. Something that needs to be considered.|
|Diction||Some comments on the lack of clear diction.||The venue was too small, the opposite wall bounced the sound back to me and this made a ‘fuzzy’ sound – not usually a problem for me. This may be combined with the lack of translations in the programme.|
|Dress||No comments on this from the audience.||I tried a plain black dress – not my usual approach, but I wanted to wear ‘standard’ concert dress. However, it felt draining and looked dull on the video, particularly where there is no other scenery or props.|
The youtube question
I have found it very intimidating that people can view footage of superstars such as Maria Callas singing the same repertoire as me on http://www.youtube.com. This is because I had assumed that they are comparing me unfavourably to world class singers when I perform.
On reading Ficher-Lichte, and David Craig (amongst others), I have realised that I cannot perform like Maria Callas or anyone else , not because I am not as good as them, but because I am not them, and do not live in their bodies. Fischer-Lichte quotes Simmel, who says that, ‘the dramatic character is created through their respective physicality and the performative acts that constitute their bodies. Each interpretation can be no other than different due to their ‘individual corporalities’.
My interpretation of this point is that it is not about permission to do it differently, but it is mandatory to do so: I have no choice. Therefore, it is best to completely inhabit and accept my own way of approaching the characterisation of the music. I need to be able to highlight my individual talents and areas of strength. This is particularly important for repertoire choices, because I am the only person who can really know how a particular piece is going to work in my body, and specifically, how it will work in my own voice.
It has also been a revelation that from the surveys and interviews, singers are not using youtube as a comparison point for other singers’ performances. They are aware of the mistakes that exist in the footage, and are wary of relying on it as a reliable source for learning.
This line of thinking increases self awareness, giving the performer more confidence in their own choices for characterisation, as it means knowing the self and the voice well enough to choose the most appropriate repertoire for the current point in vocal development.
 Moseley Nick, Acting and Reacting, (Routledge 2005), 6