How to direct an opera
April 21, 2009 5:26 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between directing a play and stage-directing an opera?

I've wanted to work on an opera for years, and it looks like the opportunity might arise in the next several months, working with a composer-friend in a new company. So, what can I learn in the next six months or so to make me ready to work on an opera?

Some background: I've been involved with the theater on some level or other for my entire life. I took a few directing classes in college. I've directed a handful of plays and writer-directored a few projects, all with no budget and very small casts. I'm not a big table-work person; I'd rather get people moving around onstage as early in the process as possible. I come in with a basic floor-plan and blocking mapped out for some key moments, but most of what happens between and around those key moments happens in the process of messing around and experimenting.

I'd like to think I'm pretty competent at text analysis. I do as much research as I can before the first rehearsal, and have the text divided into workable sections with some clear objectives laid out for each section. I try to plan rehearsals pretty meticulously and let people know what we'll be working on ahead of time, so as not to waste anyone's time. Directors whose writings have had a big impact on my approach to directing include William Ball, Peter Brook, Anne Bogart.

But really, and despite the fact that I spend a lot of time around opera singers, I don't actually have much idea what takes place in an opera rehearsal. I hear stories of misguided theater directors dragging singers through useless activities that don't contribute anything to the final product, and I very much do not want to be that director. What will singers put up with?

In case it's not obvious, the piece we're talking about is modern and very minimal. It'll be a small cast - about 5 principals and a chorus of 4-8 people. The orchestra will probably consist of one or two people on various instruments. My friend will be the music director. There won't be any union people or anything like that.

I know the most obvious answer - sit in on some rehearsals, which I definitely plan to do. What else can I do? What can I read? What can I watch?

Thanks a lot.
posted by roll truck roll to Media & Arts (3 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I'm not a director, but I've been in both kinds of shows. One thing I can tell you is that most singers, especially opera singers, can't move around too much or in certain ways while they are singing - they need to conserve their breath and energy for singing, and they usually need to keep their torsos and necks "lined up" to give freedom to the air and vocal chords. You can have them do whatever you want during musical breaks, as long as it doesn't cause them to be out of breath, but while singing you have to be careful.

Also - you might find yourself arranging the stage in certain ways to compensate for acoustics - some pitches carry better than others, some singers are louder than others, some musical phrases are in more voice-friendly pitch ranges.

And you might have to position your singers such that they can see the conductor for some or most music. Likewise, there may be times when the conductor will need to see the singers.

Discovering when these special times in the music are should be part of your rehearsal process. You should also check sight lines between the performers and the conductor re: the set and pit in your performance space before beginning rehearsals.
posted by amtho at 5:39 PM on April 21, 2009

Thanks, amtho. These are some really insightful points.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:51 PM on April 23, 2009

You are gonna be awesome at this, mister. I always really dug acting for you.

So knowing at least a little how your style works, I'd say something that would work really well for you is just being upfront about all this from the beginning. Tell the singers that it's your first opera, though you've done a bunch of theatre. I'd bet that the input they can offer about standard practice combined with your background in movement and staging could make something really cool.

From what I know of opera, it seems like singers spend a lot of time being plugged into things that are already blocked, maybe even years ago. The chance to be involved in the process is probably relatively rare. This is just conjecture, though.

I wrote an email to my opera teacher buddy (who has also done a lot of theatre) and I hope she'll get back to me.
posted by lauranesson at 2:16 PM on April 23, 2009

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