Thursday, June 09, 2005

I must have been thinking of...

How to Act in Opera

By Alfred V. Frankenstein

For many years, man and boy, professional and amateur, it has been my pleasure to observe many of the world’s greatest operatic stars on the stages of Berlin, Rome, Florence, Paris, New York, Chicago and San Francisco. As a result of this polyglot experience I have perfected what is now in process of being patented under the name of the All-American Five-Point System of Operatic Acting. Just as there are five positions basic to the art of the classic ballet, so operatic acting is reduced in this system to five basic attitudes, which by variation, permutation, combination, synthesis, conjunction and conglomeration create an entire language of gesture suitable for use in any and all situations in any and all operas.

Basic Attitude No. 1 is the Bucket Balance. This is a position derived from the peculiar thing that happens automatically to one’s left arm when carrying a heavy pail of water in the right hand. Its plain or stiff-armed form has an important variant, the Cursive Bucket Balance, done with a more supple motion from the elbow. Both these gestures are universally useful. They can be employed to indicate jealousy, ecstasy, choler, or (as is usually the case) nothing at all.

A second highly important variant of the Bucket Balance is the Invisible Churn. When indulged in at arm’s length this movement is much favored by chorus people to signify animated conversation. When done with a short jab and crooked elbow, the clenched fist close to the chest it indicates villainy. This latter form, however, might be called one of several variations of:

Basic Attitude No. 2, the Heart Attack. This action, one hand placed firmly over the upper ribs, is to well known to require description, as is its first transformation, the Double-Breasted Heart Attack. In this same category comes the Asthma Clutch, similar to the Heart Attack, but with the fingers at the base of the throat. Also under this general heading one must place the Lemon Squeeze, wherein the hands are joined in a tight clasp about four inches in front of the breast bone.

Basic Attitude No. 3 is Worse Than Death. The head is lowered, the hand grasps the back hair, and the bent arm forms a kind of frame for the head. This can be done either seated or standing. It often alternates with:

Basic Attitude No. 4, the Guy Rope Stance. The hands are extended stiffly downward, at an angle of about forty-five degrees from the body, the chest is thrown out, and the feet are often parted in a kind of frozen stride. The whole picture is designed, as far as possible, after the appearance of a governor on a motor. Required of wronged husbands when the bad news breaks, but useful in other situations as well.

Fifth and last of the Basic Attitudes is the Fevered Brow. The back (never the palm) of one hand is placed on the forehead, the head itself is frequently tilted either backward or forward, and the other arm is always extended in a Bucket Balance. The Fevered Brow is usually completed with a determined, side-swiping motion of the hand away from the head indicating that the incredible revelation that produced the gesture in the first place is too dreadful to be believed. It then frequently goes into the Guy Rope Stance.

These are the movements and positions basic to every operatic work of every school and nationality, and therefore are universally applicable. There is also a rich field of gesture and action peculiar to specific works and specific roles which I also propose to teach. I shall, for instance, give careful instruction to Carmen chorus ladies on the approved method of singeing their eyebrows while smoking cigarettes that stick straight up in the air. Embryo Valkyries graduating from our academy will be thoroughly proficient in the Bloodhound Snoop, Seven O’Clock in the Morning (an exercise for the development of the right biceps done with a spear instead of a dumbbell) and other calisthenics of Wagnerian interpretation. No one training for any part in Aida can afford to dispense with Heil Hitler and the Egyptian Double-Breasted Heart Attack. The approved methods of hunting for hidden objects in places here they very obviously have not been hidden will occupy an important place in the curriculum. All manner of shudders, staggers, flops and falls will be appropriately codified. And the subject of placing daggers under the armpit will call for a course all its own.

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