Overthinking it and other trapsOp-ed
Singers love to “figure out” the characters they play. Digging deep into a role becomes a sort of short-term obsession; they’ll talk about their current (or favourite) opera character for ever and ever. They’ll tell you all about what people think Don Giovanni or Violetta or Cavaradossi are all about, and then they’ll tell you what they’re really like. They’ve got the inside scoop, you see; they pore over every letter and every note of their role, trying to make it their own while living up to every legend who ever sang it before them.
Oh, the time you could spend on a mess like Don José, or whether or not Peter Grimes killed that boy, or or Musetta’s secret laundry list of insecurities. Such fodder we have in our midst. I wonder, sometimes, if budding opera singers were always so eager to peel back the dramatic layers (real or otherwise) of their roles. It only does good for opera to have more skilled actors onstage. So, it’s a great thing that acting lessons have become a staple for most young artist and summer training programs. I’ve noticed a funny side-effect, though, from my seat as a coach.
Singers, particularly young singers, grow understandably attached to some of the roles they take on. Meaty characters like Figaro or the Countess are great examples, because their stories are timeless, and told in relatively few words; that leaves lots of room for interpretation. Combine that with the natural curiosity of an inspired student with nothing to do but learn, and it’s a breeding ground for the Overthinker.
Look, I’d usually take a neurotic, overthinking dramaphile over some of the Golden Oldies. Great as their voices were, no one really equates acting prowess with the likes of Pavarotti or Kiri Te Kanewa. Of course I want to listen to them all the time, but in some cases, these old greats could be singing about anything. So when people like Alice Coote (0:19, #slain) or Gerald Finley come along and really become these characters, without sacrificing their singing, it reinvigorates these operas for their new fans.
Fast-forward to me sitting in a 1-hr coaching with a baritone who can’t stop getting excited about the Count in Le nozze di Figaro, meaning he deconstructs for 45 minutes and he sings for less than 15. As inspired as he may be, most of his deconstructing will never relay to the audience; this isn’t because he isn’t capable of putting theory into practice, but because there are only so many emotional states one can actually play. Even fewer fit into the line that baritone is currently singing.
I mean, how do you play, “the Count is a smart guy who’s not actually smart, he’s more well-read but unwise, and he’s fighting for what he thinks is right, but it’s actually wrong, and it’s not even about sleeping with Susanna, it’s about beating Figaro (#winning), and he’s in a marriage that grew stale and he wants to feel young again, like a man, but he’s the stock villain in the story, because it’s about class wars, and the Count is the establishment, except he was kind of a hero in Il barbiere….“? Et cetera.
Tenors do this with the likes of Rodolfo in La bohème (who is a total romantic, except possessive of his girlfriend, because he’s the product of old-school sexism in Italy, implanted into Bohemian life in France, and Mimì is a hussy anyway) and the Duke in Rigoletto (who has every right to live his life the way he wants, and it’s not his fault that Gilda is emotionally 4 years old, and maybe he did really love her in that moment anyway, so how can he be villainized?).
Mezzos go mental with Carmen (the lady who oozes sex but she’s not a whore, and she’s got her own status and doesn’t need Western civilization because she’s a strong independent woman who won’t be taken advantage of but she ends up jumping into bed with powerful men who give her things like freedom and fame).
It’s only a problem when that baritone is so overloaded with concepts about this intriguing character, that he looks more like a deer in headlights rather than a Count while he sings.
You just can’t be pleased, Jenna, you sigh. *First you want people to act, goddammit, and now they’re doing too much homework?*
Basically, yeah. Perhaps it’s to be expected that, with more focus on drama, and the huge amounts of recordings from which singers can learn, there’s a pendulum swinging here. If you’ll permit me to use extreme examples, we’ve swung from parking and barking, to heady, hand-wringing depictions of iconic characters. I’ll grant that every performer is different, and maybe they’re at home in the so-called overthought characterizations; and playing someone like Lulu is arguably more complicated than playing Barbarina.
So where’s the sweet spot? It’s not that hard to find, especially for singers with a bit of hindsight. What made you so fascinated with the character of Don Giovanni in the first place? Something pulled you in to find out more, and I think that point of entry is the sweet spot that you, the educated singer, can share with the (perhaps uneducated) listener.
All the background and all the presumed motivations you’ve discovered about this character will add to your performance, but only if that first step in the door is presented first. Don Giovanni may have a drug problem, or he may be secretly gay, or he may be grossly insecure, but you can play seduction. And that’s enough, you know? Simplicity doesn’t mean you put in less work, it just means you let the audience get interested on their own.
Lastly, you haven’t failed if your audience doesn’t pick up on Don José’s bad mother issues or how Zerlina is clearly too young to be thinking about getting married anyway. Listeners may have a grand old time anyway, enjoying what they enjoy. They then head out for post-opera drinks and argue, and that’s how you know you gave them a show.