Resources for the Opera Workshop

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Opera is alive and welland living in Baltimore, Boston, and Bloomington! With more than 901 performing groups, both amateur and professional, giving 6,673 performances of opera in the United States during the 1973-74 season,1 the habitual viewer-with-alarm who has long claimed that opera is dead, to all intents and purposes, must begin to revise his thinking.

Opera is not only alive in the large music centers. It is thriving also in colleges, universities, and conservatories where students have long demanded training in opera workshop as practical preparation for future performing careers, for teacher training, and more than ever, for just plain play-acting fun on stage.

By and large, the university will tend to hire as its opera director a former singer or conductor with experience in one of the professional opera companies. These veterans have been taught their craft by famous teachers who in turn were taught by earlier famous teachers in an unbroken oral tradition leading back often to the first performances of standard operas at some of the major opera houses of the world.2 Changes made in performance by the early artists themselves with the approval of the composer (cadenzas, cuts, ornamentation, stage devices), seldom appear in the published scores. Instead, they are passed down from maestro to maestro and singer to singer. Personal interpretations, both dramatic and musical, have added enrichment to a multi-media art which otherwise can only be a printed skeleton to today's scholar, even with his growing treasury of fine recordings and films, admittedly one-dimensional.

Any opera performance becomes an amalgamation of the score, the libretto, the physical and mental gifts of the individual singers, the conductor and his orchestra, the stage director, and the stage designer and costumer, in just about that order of importance, too, unorthodox though such an order may seem to the uninitiated. To run an opera workshop in a university, therefore, the director will need a number of different kinds of reference works for the different aspects of his craft, works which are not often found in the usual catalogues of college textbooks.

The foremost problem for an opera producer concerns the choice of opera to be performed. Two volumes by Quaintance Eaton are indispensable for an informed decision on repertoire, Opera Production I (St. Paul: University of Minnesota Press, 1961, now transferred to New York: Da Capo, 1974) and Opera Production II (St. Paul: University of Minnesota, 1974). Both books are organized to give maximum information about long and short operas, their performance requirements, timing, general difficulty, and general character. Opera Production I deals mostly with standard repertoire items up to the 1960's. Opera Production II adds more than 300 titles of revivals and new arrivals on the opera scene in the last fifteen years. Mrs. Eaton lists each opera under the title in the languages of existing librettos, along with a synopsis of the story, a listing of major and minor roles with their ranges and special techniques, the chorus and orchestra requirements, where to obtain the scores and performing rights, and photographs of sets and costumes. A history of both premiere performances and recent productions completes each entry.

The next set of problems pertains to the stage director. One book by the Grand Old Master himself, Boris Goldovsky, provides specific ideas for many typical operatic situations. No one involved in opera should be without his Bringing Opera to Life (New York: Appleton, Century-Crofts, 1968) for standard opera scenes. Bringing Soprano Arias to Life by Goldovsky and Arthur Schoep (New York: G. Schirmer, 1973) suggests ways to stage traditional scenes when the singing itself is so demanding that only minimal stage movement, no matter how vital, can be allowed to complicate the tour de force of the vocalization.

Before the opera as a specific art form can be produced, however, general stage principles raise their spotlights, so to speak. What if the chosen opera is a new one without a tradition of its own or, because of unusual stage conditions, requires a totally new mise-en-scene? Doris Humphrey in her book, The Art of Making Dances (New York: Grove Press, 1959), gives a clear picture of the most effective deployments of stage space and movement. Who, having seen her designs, will ever be able to forget that the strongest possible entrance is from upstage right moving diagonally downstage left?

As musicians, we are inclined to relate opera only to music. Nevertheless, the opera director must function strongly as a judge of stage direction. The classic text on stage direction by the late Alexander Dean, Fundamentals of Play Directing (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965) updated by Lawrence Carra, has not yet been surpassed. The book gives suggestions for acting class procedures, for relaxing exercises, and for practice scenes. Some of the material involves the timing of lines, hardly appropriate to musical settings. But most other chapters are both valid and helpful to the opera director.

A newer and very good text was put out in 1971 by Allyn and Bacon of Boston, Theatrical Direction: The Basic Techniques, by David Welker, and is already in its third printing. Three chapters on blocking make sensible suggestions to similar blocking problems of opera; and the last chapter, "The Actor's Personality as an Element of Production," is a valuable reminder to all directors to make discriminating use of the individuality of the artist himself to add to the greater creativity of the production. Chapter 9, "The Rehearsal Schedule," also contains a number of valuable clues as to the probable amount of time and the suggested emphasis required in rehearsals for other similar dramatic elements.

Another recent text belonging in the opera library is Sense of Direction by the English director, John Fernald (New York: Stein and Day, 1968). Many similar books are aimed at the amateur theater, it is true. That aim does not destroy their value to the opera director. On the contrary. All but three or four opera companies in the United States function largely as amateur theaters from necessity. The singers are usually professional musicians, to be sure, but they are amateur actors. Therein lies the difficulty. Each singer must be taught general theatrical know-how, starting with acting.

A knowledge about the technique of acting must include, at the very least, a reference to the grand old man of modern acting, the originator of The Method, so The Stanislavski System by Sonia Moore with a preface by Sir John Gielgud and a foreword by Joshua Logan should provide food for thought at very little cost (the New York Viking Press edition of 1966 paperbound costs only $1.25).

For a general understanding of stagecraft, students should own and consult frequently such other paperbacks as The Production and Staging of Plays by Conrad Carter, A.J. Bradbury, and W.R.B. Howard (New York: Arc Books, 1968) and Amateur Theater by Van H. Cartmell (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1968) paperbound. Notice particularly Chapter IV on "Movement and Its Control."

Ideally, the Opera Workshop can design, beg, borrow, rent, or steal enough scenery to create an adequate suggestion of the necessary stage settings. (Only the wealthiest companies can afford professional stage design.) A few students who are handy with a hammer and saw plus the book Essentials of Stage Scenery by Samuel Selden and Tom Rezzuto (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1972) can supply the workshop with unusual scenic devices. A continuing subscription to Theater Crafts (33 East Minor Street, Emmaus, Pa. 18049) provides access to the newest technical information plus sources for such tricky props as breakaway jugs for Hansel and Gretel or stage smoke for Faust. The University Theater, if your school has one, or the local Little Theater Group will often provide someone to supervise the lighting of whatever stage is available to the Opera Workshopor even lend its entire crack lighting crew. If worse comes to worse, commercial lighting firms exist and will mount professional equipment for you (at a fee, of course) in even the most unsuitable playing arenas. Check the advertisers in your current issue of Theater Crafts.

There are no rental possibilities, however, for good stage management. Because of this lack, the new Lawrence Stern volume called Stage Management (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1974) should become a professional bible to the Opera Department. By following the organization of this book, the Workshop will become a proper theater. Do not despair of finding an experienced stage manager. Pick an intelligent and willing member of your staff who can read. Give him the Stern book and then relax. Your whole operation will run smoothly from then on, and all productions will shine the more because they are no longer muddied by technical sludge.

More than many dramatic forms, opera depends heavily on illusions produced by make-up. Seldom does the pink-cheeked college mezzo-soprano resemble the witch Azucena, nor is a convincing-looking Don Bartolo ever found among members of the undergraduate class in vocal literature. So a first-rate text on dramatic disguises such as Stage Makeup by Richard Carson (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967, 4th edition) is invaluable. Better have two copies, one for the women's dressing room and one for the men's. The illustrations of this book are particularly useful. Most of the photographs show the same models throughout all the sections to prove the effectiveness of the principles involved. Starting on page 262, there is a suggested outline for a short course in make-up. Note particularly Figure 51 on page 98 to illustrate optical illusions in eye make-up, Figure 47 on page 92 on how to stipple faces for aging. Turn to pages 385-426 to find period hairstyles for both men and women and to chapter 13 for the use of nose putty for comic and other three-dimensional make-up. The directions for changing a Caucasian face to an Asian produce a remarkably authentic look for a production of Madama Butterfly. As with most books on make-up published in the United States, however, the reverse direction from an Asian face to a Caucasian is never mentioned specifically but is left to the reader to devise by means of the general principles developed by the author.

When all is said and done, most opera singers, conductors, and directors share their enthusiasm with a great host of public audiences known as opera lovers. As opera lovers, the Opera Workshop members should be directed to read widely about composers and performers in history, for they are indeed a glamorous lot who have been adored, sometimes even worshipped, by generations of fans. From the viewpoint of pure enjoyment as well as historical background, the opera lover should occasionally devote himself to such a book as The Opera by Joseph Wechsberg (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Wechsberg approaches opera from the point of view of the singing. As a result, his chapter on "Singing and Singers" is particularly interesting to the singers of the Workshop, who are often given short shrift socially by the other gung-ho musicians of the school of music. For pure history, of course, there is always Donald Jay Grout's A Short History of Opera (New York: Columbia University Press, second ed., 1965). For enrichment reading, suggest also to your singers Music and the Theater by Reinhardt Pauly (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970) and the Famous Opera Series put out by Dover Publications in paperback.

Opera has acquired a bad name in the theater because the immense difficulty of balancing musical and stage elements has led to obvious weaknesses in public performance. In spite of those poor performances, the Opera Workshop has proliferated on the college campus; and the glamor of professional opera continues to grow. Because of this growth, it is more important than ever that the college opera producer provide smooth performances for his audiences and fruitful performing experiences for his student casts. The help of the afore-mentioned expert texts combined with his own professional training in music and opera tradition should raise the educational level and eventually create the next surge of enthusiasm for operaa surge based on skilled teaching in the many-faceted curriculum known as the Opera Workshop.


1Marie F. Rich, "A Note of Optimism," Opera News, 35 No. 5 (November, 1974), 26-32.

2For example, the writer studied the role of Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor with Queena Mario, who had studied the role with Marcella Sembrich, who had studied it with Lamperti at the urging of Franz Liszt. Sembrich sang Lucia in London in 1880 and made her Met debut in the same role in 1883.

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Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

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