Literature Review

Considering whether a specific approach is even needed when characterising arias for a concert has received little attention[1]. This is exemplified in Sharon Stohrer’s book The Singer’s Companion[2], where she offers a short summary of ‘characterisation’, but her assessment assumes that the singer will be performing the whole role[3].

Only a small number of books and other resources appear to address the topic of characterisation for opera. There is much agreement that acting in opera is now much more important than in the past, as exemplified in articles in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini and others[4], but the resources available are few and not widely available. It is a positive step forward that this gap is now beginning to be filled by a few more recent titles, as well as the older ones.[5]

Although a different context to a concert, some similarities exist between an aria sung in an audition and one sung in a concert, as they are both beyond the opera stage. However, even in audition books, not much is given to characterisation itself. For example, The Art of Auditioning[6]contains a short chapter on ‘Preparing your music’ for an audition. In this chapter, Legge warns against getting so wrapped up in the strong emotion of an aria that the vocal quality is overly compromised. However, he does not develop this idea further nor give any strategies which could guard against it. The chapter then goes straight into a technical approach of acquiring the correct pitches and rhythms.

From a selection of generalist classical pedagogical singing books, it appears that the emphasis when teaching classical singing is overwhelmingly on technical elements such as breathing, vowel articulation, and posture[7]. Although these are all relevant and need integrating into the dramatic context, they do not refer to characterisation explicitly. This is often put next to issues on performance anxiety, there are some fleeting references to characterisation, but the issue does not appear to be uppermost in the thoughts of the pedagogical singing community.

This can be contrasted with the sheer amount of books on characterisation in the acting world. For example, Creating a character[8] focuses on techniques to express a character physically, rather than a sole focus on the emotional journey of a character. Acting and Reacting[9] is in reaction to ‘actors working from the neck up rather than through the expressive body’[10]; a common problem for singers too.

Well-known experts the field of acting and directing such as Constantin Stanislavski, Stella Adler, Peter Brook and Keith Johnston have all written about approaches to characterisation, both emotional and physical[11] and appear to be much more widely known than their counterparts writing about characterisation in opera.  However, the opera world does not seem to have developed this literature into a body of work more relevant to singers.

It is intriguing that so little is written, as many singers perform single arias in concerts far more often than they sing entire roles in staged operas[12], particularly early in their career.  My research is an attempt to facilitate both singers and teachers to consider this issue and to offer some solutions.

Click here for the next section, Methodology.


[1] A selection of books to demonstrate the point they mention characterisation or performance, albeit briefly or base their advice on a genre other than opera: Craig David, A performer prepares, (Applause Books 1993); Green Barry, The Inner Game of Music, (Pan 1986); Klickstein Gerald, The Musician’s Way, (OUP 2009).

[2] Stohrer Sharon, The Singing Companion,(Routledge 2006), Chapter 7.

[3] Ibid.

[4]Tommasini Anthony, Dancing to Deathbed, Traditionally, 13th February 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/arts/music/city-opera-returns-with-jonathan-millers-traviata.html (accessed 9th July 2012) and Shoonmaker Bruce, Operatic Acting, http://facweb.furman.edu/~bschoonmaker/acting.html (accessed 9th July 2012)

[5] A selection of books on characterisation for opera: Stanislavski Constantin, Stanislavski on Opera, (New York: Theatre Arts Book 1975); Clark Mark Ross and Clark Lynn V, Singing, Acting, and Movement in Opera: A Guide to Singer-Getics, (Indiana University Press 2002); Major Leon, The Empty Voice, (Limelight Editions 2011); Lucca LizBeth, Acting Techniques for Opera, (Vivace Opera 2007); Miller Jonathan, Acting in Opera (BBC series 1987).

[6] Legge Anthony, The Art of Auditioning, (Peters 2002), 24; Dornemann Joan, Ciaccia, Milnes Sherrill and Milnes Nancy, Complete Preparation. A Guide to Auditioning for Opera, (Excalibur New York 1992)

[7] The selection included: Chapman Janice, Singing and Teaching Singing: A holistic approach, (Plural Publishing 2006); Miller Richard, On the Art of Singing, (OUP 1996); Hemsley Thomas, Singing and Imagination (OUP 1998); Potter John, The Cambridge Companion to Singing, Cambridge University Press 2000).

[8] Yakim Moni, Creating a Character, (Applause Theatre Book Publishers 1990).

[9] Moseley Nick, Acting and Reacting, (Routledge 2005).

[10] Ibid, 4.

[11] Stanislavski Constantin, Building a Character, (Reindhardt & Evans 1950); Adler Stella, The Art of Acting, (Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 2000); Brook Peter, The Empty Space, (Penguin Classics 2008); Johnstone Keith Impro:Improvisation and Theatre, (Methuen Drama 2007).

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