April 14, 2013

The 4 most annoying personalities around the opera house.

Now, before you read my observations below and start to give me a hard time for being all snarky, let me be clear:

I like opera people. The singers, the designers, those who work the crew; the lot of 'em. Some of my happiest memories consist of productions I've been privileged to be a part of, and interactions with opera people account for most of those memories. Opera people are outgoing, fun, talented and charismatic as a breed.

But, as in any walk of life, the opera scene also spawns the occasional personality best described as gratingly, caustically, stepping-on-one's-last-nervily OBNOXIOUS. It's my observation that these specimens fall into predictable categories. I now enumerate and describe the four worst for your edification.

1. Stage directors who don't prepare ahead of time.
Boy scout.
HE'S prepared...
Opera singers: ever been to an initial staging rehearsal that went something like this? The scene: a rehearsal hall stage, with a cast of principals, full chorus and assorted crew members all in place, ready to work. Aaaaand... ACTION:

DIRECTOR: "Okay, people, let me see here (stands with hands on hips, surveying the stage, looking from side to side.) Let me have... um... hmmm... let me have two altos and two tenors... the four of you, please... upstage left by that rock. That's it, now let me have some basses and sopranos on the other side by the bridge.  Very good, thank you. Now Cio-Cio San and Suzuki, let's put you downstage center. Now move a little stage left, thank you. More. More. That's it. No, edge back stage right a little. Hmmmm.... something just doesn't seem...  Upstage chorus, can the bridge people and the rock people switch places, please? Thank you. Hmmm... no, go back where I put you the first time, darlings, thanks so much. Now Pinkerton and Sharpless, at this point the two of you will huddle over by the door of the house like you're, I dunno, watching the relatives or something... thanks...  No, Pinky and Sharpy, you know what? Instead let's have you over there by the bridge chorus people, just smiling at them. Now, we need to place the rest of the chorus, don't we? HMMMMMMM..... actually, Pinky and Sharpy, what if you are downstage left in the corner, and you're... uh... well, doing something, we'll figure that out later. Okay, chorus, can you divide the rest of you into two groups by the bridge and the rock? What? I don't know, dear, it doesn't matter, just divide yourselves up any way you like. What? Oh, I suppose it would be better musically if you stand with your own voice type, you're absolutely right. Actually, chorus, can all of you just go to the downstage left corner so you can watch the conductor or whatever you need musically? That's it darlings, thank you. So YOU, Cio-Cio and Suzi, let's put you up by the rock. Well, just try it. Wait... hmmmmm.... no, ladies, go over to the bridge, let's see how that works visually."

And it goes on like that for two hours, until NO ONE CAN REMEMBER WHERE THE HELL THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO BE because you did nineteen different positions!!!!!  And the next day...

...it all changes again. 

Stage directors: do your homework, I'm begging you. Thanks a million, love you lots.

2. Vocal coaches who always have to model the phrasing they want.
Here's what NOT to do when working with a singer: 

"Instead of beginning that crescendo on the second half of the first beat, begin it on right on the third beat like this: dee-dee-DEE-DEEE-DAAAAAAA. Then make a big subito piano like this:  DAAAAAAA-pa-pa-pa. You see? Also, remember that the important word is "pollo" in the next phrase. Shape it like this: "Io vorreeeeeiii una piattaaaaaaa di POOOOOOLLOOO". Now try that."

"What's wrong with that?" you may be asking. Well, if it's your objective as a coach to have a singer trying to imitate another person's phrasing and musicality, instead of developing their own interpretive skills, resulting in a stilted, non-organic performance, then congratulations: you NAILED it!!

What to do instead when working with a singer:

"As I listened to you sing that phrase, it sounded angry. Is that what you intended? No? What were you going for? Yearning, you say? Well, that's not what you're projecting. Sing it again and figure out a way to make it less angry and more yearning. You might try being less aggressive as you go up that broken chord. Go."

In conclusion, coaches, resist the urge to teach singers how to phrase by modeling it for them; even the young ones; even the dumb ones. Vocal artists must find their own way, with you the coach functioning as an objective pair of ears. If you want to sing so much, then be a singer. Thanks a million, love you lots.

3. Cast-mates who must be the class clown in rehearsals.
Clowns: okay in "Pagliacci", but otherwise...
I, your Humble Blogger, was trained to be a solo pianist, but I've also sung a lot of opera here and there along the way. The life of a solo pianist is dominated by solitary activity - your butt stays plastered to a piano bench for long hours. The life of an opera singer, in contrast, is more social and convivial; you're part of a community of fellow artist-types. And I'm the last to suggest that an opera rehearsal be a somber, regimented affair in which no one utters a sound unless bidden to do so (although this is actually the fond dream of all stage managers). Rehearsals should be enjoyable, where an atmosphere of good natured mutual enjoyment sweetens the overall disciplined work ethic.

That's well and good until Mr. Class Clown joins the cast. Burdened with a severe deficit of self-esteem, Mr. CC has a pathological need to keep the focus of attention on himself at all times. (Note: I use the male pronoun advisedly; I have not yet encountered a female Class Clown. It's a guy thing.)

What are Mr. CC's weapons? How does he destroy this good-natured yet productive zeitgeist? In a word, schtick. He is a never-ending stream of well-rehearsed schtick. If his staging requires him to stand mute while other actors are busy with dialogue or action, CC will make funny faces, yawn, talk to people out in the house, engage in "amusing" pantomime. If it's one of CC's big scenes and the stage director dares give CC some constructive criticism, he will react in one or more of these ways:
  • He will launch into his hysterical impersonation of Curly, the pudgy member of the Three Stooges: "WHAT?? Why da NOIVE..." He will then switch to Moe, displaying his Robin-Williams-like versatility.
  • Thus inspired, he will then launch into his hysterical impersonation of Robin Williams doing a rapid succession of characters, generally including John Wayne.
  • He will defend, loudly and at length, the way he just did his scene: "Let me try it again. I really think I can make it work my way. I have it all worked out, watch it again. I don't see why it won't work. I did it this way at Opera Tulsa, and everybody loved it."
The amazing thing is that, if Mr. CC has a large principal role, everyone in the company is reluctant to take him aside and bid him cease and desist. Mostly people just avert their faces and discreetly roll their eyes. And talk about him behind his back at lunch - to which he is seldom invited.

Class Clowns, lose the schtick. Thanks a million, love you lots.

4. Cast-mates who, uninvited, nominate themselves to be "assistant stage directors".
Take part in enough productions of opera or music theater, and you'll encounter this "helpful" individual, whose salient personality quirk is to assume that the process of stage direction should always be a group project in which all may feel free to share any amazing, wonderful ideas that strike them.

Oddly, just as the Class Clown is invariably a male, the "volunteer assistant director" is (in my experience) a female. Ms. A.D. would never describe herself as "bossy", oh no - not she! Rather, based on her wide-ranging experience of having been in several musicals at her high school (oh yes - she's also very young in most cases) and college, she is just quick as a bunny at realizing what's clunky about the "actual" director's blocking and coming up with a suggestion to make it more efficient. Usually, she interrupts the rehearsal by politely raising her hand after some scene has just been run, like a bright student in Spanish class who knows all the answers, until the director lets her speak:

"Well, I was just wondering if it might be better if Nicole and I went around the table in the other direction so we could grab the teapot before the music begins."

"What if, instead of starting on the left foot and going step-step-hop-skip-turn-turn-turn, we start on the right foot and just go turn turn turn hop? Isn't that simpler and kind of clearer?"

"I was just thinking that it could be cool if Papageno entered from the back of the theater and came down the aisle for his entrance. I saw it done like that once and it was so cool! Children got to see him up close, which seems like a plus, right?"

Woe unto the (real) stage director who is so foolish as to actually adopt one of Ms. A.D.'s "suggestions". To do so is to open the floodgates to a barage of "suggestions" that will waste long rehearsal hours and improve the show not one little bit.

No, in her case, tough love is the only course of action. Take her aside and explain how the theater world works. Because if you don't, I WILL MURDER HER.

Unless she gets her act together and cuts it out, in which case: thanks a million, love you lots.

Geez, I forgot one: passive-aggressive stage managers who let singers get away with murder during rehearsals. Oh well, I'm sure I'll let loose with another rant one of these times!

My book THE OPERA ZOO: SINGERS, COMPOSERS AND OTHER PRIMATES is available from Kendall Hunt Publishing. Order online or by phone from customer service: 1-800-344-9034, ext. 3020. Also available at www.amazon.com

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