The Singing Actor: The Art of Declamation
Luciano Pavarotti was not known for his stage prowess in terms of movement for obvious reasons, but he possessed a quality that has become largely lost in the ”new world of ‘music theater of opera”’ The art is known as ‘declamation’ and it is the very essence of what an actor is. The ability to convey an entire world in the mind of the listener through the spoken, or in this case sung, word.
In my experience in German theater, I have been asked to sing some very difficult music while doing some sort of rather strenuous stage movements. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it, after all I am a rock and roller at heart, but the extreme physicality asked by a lot of directors doesn’t build in the intention behind the texts. Often you get so caught up in some silly unimportant stage direction, that you forget to convey the meaning of the words, worse yet is that all of this ”action” out of a fear of opera being boring, the audience is distracted from the whole point of the scene because of the stupid stuff directors often have singers do.
I used to think that all of this moving around was modern and cool, but when I look back on it, all I can think of is how silly a lot of it was.
After all of these years I look back at it and think that not only does it distract from what people are saying, it also distracts from producing a musical line in the best possible way. It isn’t advisable for an opera singer to be out of breath due to stage action when singing operatic literature. This has nothing to do with conditioning, but has to do with picking your spots and making sure that you are in control of your breath and that your breath doesn’t control you.
In this clip from Andrea Chenier, Pavarotti demonstrates what declamation is all about. Chenier was not one of Pavarotti’s preferred roles, but still, he sings it with his voice and conveys the text in a compelling fashion. I find it extraordinary. (click on the title to go to You Tube for subtitles)
Above all, Pavarotti stays a tenor. You never see him over darkening his voice or risk getting out of his very disciplined way of singing.
Obviously having Italian as a mother tongue gives Pavarotti a edge in interpretation, but simply to have the ability to stand there and address an audience in such a compelling way is a monument to the ‘Art of Declamation’ and should make directors, conductors and singers re-evaluate what being a ‘Singer-Actor’ is all about.