As he takes on a run of Chekhov shorts – performed by opera singers-turned-actors – Artistic Director of Euphonia Studio, Alisdair Kitchen, muses on why acting in opera has such a bad rap.

A few months ago I directed a production of La Traviata in one of London’s excellent pub theatres – the Drayton Arms in Kensington. Our budget was pretty non-existent, so the set consisted of a borrowed table and chairs, and some imaginative cross-lighting. With no scenery to chew on, and the audience within touching distance, the focus was entirely on the cast bringing this extraordinary human story to life. When several audience members commented to me afterwards that they felt like they had just watched a play, I took this to be the highest compliment. Not that the singing was incidental – it was of course integral – but rather it was a vindication of our efforts to create real, believable people on stage.

While the ‘park and bark’ school of acting is fortunately a fading memory in the opera world, there is still a lingering assumption that opera singers can’t act. Or at least, they can’t act as well as their colleagues in ‘straight’ theatre. After my Traviata experience, I began to think more about whether this belief is justified, and if it is, whether something could be done to challenge it.

I have to confess that I have quite a bit of sympathy with the doubters; I regularly see shockingly bad acting on opera stages. But why? Is there something about singing and acting at the same time that is insurmountable at some level?

Certainly singing expresses thoughts at a different pace to speaking; a spoken sentence that might be over in a few seconds can be spread over much longer as a sung phrase. Moreover, those same words might be sung repeatedly in an aria – this doesn’t conventionally happen in speech. So singers have a particular responsibility to uncover variety of subtext, in order to convey fresh meaning with each reiteration. It is also interesting to consider that while repetition, opera-style, is rare in speech, it is commonplace in thought. How often do we turn the same ideas over and over in our heads while thinking, or experience a thought stubbornly on loop when working something out? All the time! So perhaps there is something actually helpful and hyper-realistic in the psychology of operatic repetition.

But the pacing issue does require attention. I recently had the great fortune to get to know Jonathan Miller, a pioneer in putting ‘real life’ on the opera stage at a time when striking an heroic stance downstage and hoping for the best was the norm. For him, the key is in reinstating what he terms ’behavioural rubbish’ – the infinite variety of seemingly insignificant gestures, especially of the hands, which often seem to disappear when someone gets on stage. Behavioural scientists have studied and classified these gestures in great detail, and found them to be so deeply integrated with speech as be inseparable from each other; gesture and speech are, as it were, twin manifestations of thought. It follows therefore that a mismatch of speech and gesture can make a thought unclear, or simply not real.

Many gestures are sub-intentional; absently toying with one’s earlobe, or fiddling with a pen. Others serve to clarify narration (so-called ‘iconic’ gestures) or to emphasise important words (‘deictic’ gestures and ‘beats’), and these are crucial to expressing meaning. This is where music – a sung line – can be both help and hindrance. On the one hand, a good composer will furnish a singer with many a clue about the psychology of their character, purely in the inflexion of their music. But it is all too easy to be seduced by the musical cadence into making gestures that don’t resemble real life gestures at all. And when that happens, an observer will smell a rat, and cease to see a character in action, and rather see a singer emoting. Which is at best unconvincing and at worst, frightfully dull.

With all this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to get some of my singer friends together and put on a play; we could explore these issues in a spoken context and see how it would inform our operatic work. Encouraged to have quite a few takers, I organised a read-through of The Duchess of Malfi, which with its combination of love and gore seemed fairly operatic in its own right! I felt the music of the verse – that scaffolding provided by the pentameter – had elements akin to a musical score, which could be helpful to us, but staging it as a first project seemed too ambitious an undertaking. So I scouted around for something more manageable, and discovered Chekhov’s short plays.

I chose three of these miniature masterpieces of tragicomedy and farce. Perhaps the most famous – The Bear – actually has an operatic incarnation, by William Walton. The Proposal is the most farcical of our selection; it pivots around an axis of two ridiculous arguments, and I have taken the liberty of recasting the father role as a mother. On The Evils Of Tobacco takes the form of a public lecture, ostensibly on that topic, but the speaker – who we have imagined as a slightly older version of the same fellow who made The Proposal – is always veering off-topic, venting his frustration about his loveless marriage. Despite some self-deprecating comments about the piece, Chekhov thought enough of it to make several re-writes, so I have conflated two of the versions. All three plays have been relocated to modern-day, north-of-England settings and the roles are shared among three fine northern opera singers.

Come and see the results of our experiment – feedback welcome!

Euphonia Studio’s Chekhov Triple Bill runs until December 10 at the Drayton Arms Theatre, and plays at Rye Creative Centre on December 18 (in association with Rye Arts Festival).