The world we live in is aggressively fast-paced, and as performers it often feels as though we are constantly playing catch-up. Even if we want to prepare for things slowly and methodically, we frequently find out about an audition or a competition mere days before the deadline. Or we get hired for a gig with three hours notice because the last guy got sick or flaked. And then, because we need those opportunities, we do the best we can, and we cram like we're studying for a test at the last minute, because the alternative is just to let opportunity pass us by.
But if we really want to bring our best selves to the stage, we need time. I am a big believer in disciplined, methodical work. Having spent a good portion of my life with one foot in the musical theatre world, I find the operatic approach to role preparation to be a luxury. It is not at all common practice for musical theatre performers to learn roles except when they have been cast in them. In opera, on the other hand, singers develop themselves as artists in part through the process of role preparation, which is undertaken independently of any concrete booking.
Learning a role without the immediate pressures of rehearsing with a cast requires a great deal of self-discipline, but it in turn gives the singing actor sufficient space to develop a real, personal connection to the material and to form an independent, individual interpretation of the role. Part of this process, of course, entails learning the words, with their proper diction, the notes and rhythms of the music. But there is another part of this process which I find critically important to bringing any character to life: acting preparation.
Now, I should point out, I have a very different background from most opera singers. I do not have a music degree. In fact, my Master's is in Theatre. Sometimes I find this uncomfortable. My fellow singers tend to be more experienced than me at things like IPA and vocal pedagogy. But, insecurities aside, having a background as an actor makes me a better opera singer. My grounding in Stanislavski, Meisner, and contemporary techniques such as Actioning, makes my performances compelling and gives an inner life to the characters I play.
At its core, acting is about making choices. And good, or even great acting is about making daring, unexpected choices that shine a new light on an old story. (They're all old stories, even the new ones. Read Joseph Campbell's The Man With the Thousand Faces if you don't believe me.)
Right now, in preparing the role of Azucena in Verdi's Il Trovatore, I am working through the entire text of the opera using a technique called Actioning, which assigns an active intent to every "beat" or thematic moment in the text of the role. It is slow, painstaking work. It demands focused attention. And sometimes, it seems unnecessary. Every actor who has done this work has had to shut out their inner dialogue: "I know how this role is supposed to feel. I understand this character. I can deliver these lines authentically without all this slow, tedious work, can't I?" And maybe I can. Maybe I can deliver a compelling performance without all that extra work. But it won't be new. It won't be unexpected. It won't find all the nuance that I will, inevitably, discover, by taking my time and doing it right. Good enough isn't good enough for me anymore. I want to make the text live in me.
I believe that this is where the real work of being an actor lies. Not in the performance itself, but in the choices we make, and the circumstances we imagine that bring our characters to life. It's not enough to sing a role with a beautiful instrument and flawless technique. Audiences want to be moved, not just impressed.
There will always be last-minute opportunities, and being able to jump in at the last minute is nothing to sneeze at. But when we can, when we have the luxury to take our time and do it right - that's when we can make real magic.