Last time I checked, opera was filled with poetry.
Text? Poetic most of the time
Composition? Poetry to the ear
Singers? Poetry made human
Staging? Poetry in motion
Well, the last might not be true in many Koncept productions...
The composer begins with poetry. Begins with a text. Opera composers, at least the good ones I imagine, would have sat, thought, and spoke the texts they were going to set. Many rewrote the texts provided to them, or often times would write the librettists asking for changes. Then there are the great ones who wrote their own poetry and set it to music: Wagner, Sondheim, Cole Porter. George had Ira, Giuseppe had Arrigo. Music and Text.
Much of the text gets lost, either because of the composer's setting of it (difficult tessitura, over orchestrated moments, ensembles where everyone is singing different text) or because a singer might not quite say all the parts of all the words all the time (it's called either being lazy, or making choices.) So a lot of the text, the poetry, of an opera is absolutely lost on the ear of the listeners. It's up to the many operatic collaborators to try to make sure as much of it gets past the orchestra pit (i.e. is heard) and to the minds of the audience (i.e. it is understood).
The most important collaborator in this adventure? For me, it is the stage director. So much text gets lost because a stage director blocks a singer to turn upstage, or face sideways, while delivering text. It's like they are staging a musical on Broadway with body microphones or something. What part of their craft didn't they learn? Is the physicality that important? Is showing attention to a partner (actor speak, sorry) more important than allowing text to travel out to the audience? Do they not understand the acoustic nature of the art form they are collaborating with on a daily basis?
No, for the most part.
So singers - particularly savvy ones with stage experience - have to decide if they'll adjust their positions slightly to get their text (via their voice) out to the audiences. It used to be called "cheating out". Now it's called rebelling against what the director wants.
Or does the director actually want that? Do they actually say "I want you to sing sideways into the wings at all times?" No, they don't say these things. It's how their direction gets misinterpreted (believe me, I've stopped being surprised by singers saying things to me like "OH! You want me to pick up the glass with my UPSTAGE hand? OKAY, sorry, you just needed to tell me!" after I've showed them a dozen times how to pick up the glass with the upstage hand.) In their defence, they are thinking about a dozen things, particularly if it's a new role, and sometimes don't have the wherewithal to focus on details of staging.
Yet, in their coachings there's a great deal of lip-service to the text. Lots of thought and struggle about its meaning, its correct pronunciation, its subtext, etc., go into a coaching. How the text sounds in the voice is an important part of any voice lesson or coaching. Then, it seems, it all goes out the window once a director says "cross stage right and sing that line to Emily".
And the line gets sung directly to Emily, who is a young singer too and is upstage of the other singer and doesn't know enough to come a bit downstage so as not to "upstage" her colleague. That's just one simple example of how text can get lost. It happens on a daily basis all over the world.
So during April, I'll be posting some blogs about text. Hopefully a few will be poetic. Heck, maybe I'll write some poetry and subject y'all to it. Let's go wild.
In the meantime, if you are headed into a staging, or into a performance (either as a listener or a performer) let's give our operatic texts a helping hand -- connect to them, think about them, enjoy them, judge them, love them. Our composers did!