ElAnt v1n6 - OPINIONS - Training the Tragic Actor

Volume 1, Number 6
November 1993


Review of
The Third Line: The Opera Performer as Interpreter,
Daniel Helfgot with William O. Beeman,
New York: Schirmer Books, 1993.
ISBN 0-02-871036-3 $35.00

Sallie R. Goetsch,
Department of Classical Studies,
University of Michigan, 
Ann Arbor,
MI 48109,
e-mail: Sallie.R.Goetsch@um.cc.umich.edu

Opera was created as a 16th-century CE version of Greek tragedy. Since that time, comparisons between the two genres of performance have been very common, at least among classicists. And while The Third Line does not directly address the relationship between opera and tragedy, it is nevertheless a book of considerable usefulness to the student of ancient theater. What Helfgot and Beeman have to say about opera can in many cases be applied equally well to tragedy, either as it was performed in the fifth century or as a guide to performing it today.

One of the things which opera and tragedy often have in common, to the detriment of both, is the absence of anything resembling acting. In March of 1991 the University of Michigan School of Music presented Mozart's Don Giovanni, with supertitles. The supertitles ran slightly behind the actual delivery of the singers, with the result that audience comprehension lagged behind the action. And it was only the supertitles which revealed the humor of Leporello's relationship to Don Giovanni. Though I was delighted to recognize in Leporello the descendant of the parasites of New and Roman Comedy, I was outraged that the singers made no effort to use their bodies to convey the meaning of the words which they were singing. I had just finished directing Auricula Meretricula, in Latin, with a cast who knew no Latin and for an audience substantially composed of non- classicists, and we had managed to generate laughs in the right places. When I voiced this protest to an acquaintance of the woman who played Donna Anna, her response was: 'Well, they have to sing, so they can't act'.

Similarly, a colleague responded to my critique of the KCL Electra (Tony Keen, EA 1, 4) by saying that it was difficult enough just to get the actors to speak and sing in Greek, much less do any real acting. And there are those who believe that the size of the theater, the use of masks, the complexity of the language made Greek tragedy a primarily audial experience in its own day (contrary, of course, to the meaning of the word 'theater').

This, according to the authors of The Third Line, is nonsense. Of course there are physical limitations on what a singer can do and still be able to project (not to mention breathe), just as masks place certain restrictions on acting style. This does not mean, however, that singers are prohibited from acting by the fact that they have to sing. The title of Helfgot and Beeman's book is a reference to 'the third line' of interpretation which a singer needs to add to the existing two lines of music and text. The book itself is a guide to writing that third line.

The Third Line is directed at professional opera singers and therefore contains much material, particularly in Chapters 10-12, which does not apply to tragedy in the fifth century, when there were no theater professionals. Comments on the polyphony of Western music (46-49) are certainly not applicable to Greek music, which admitted only of melody. Nor would an Athenian actor be expected to play the same character in the same production over and over and over (indeed, the opportunity to repeat a production was very rare), though an actor might well be typed by his strength in the parts of, say, old men or young virgins.

Even so, The Third Line contains much which is illuminating to those of us interested in the production of Greek plays. Athenian citizens possessed many of the skills which Helfgot and Beeman advocate as facilitating a singer's ability to act as a result of their upbringing. An actor/singer needs freedom of the body, understanding of music, and familiarity with the cultural context of the text. For the first Helfgot and Beeman recommend martial arts or gymnastics (16); for the second, training at playing a musical instrument or some other introduction to musical theory (46); and for the third, library research if the composer and librettist are dead (47) - but direct interaction with a living composer and librettist is even more effective (163-164).

Both music and gymnastics were, of course, a traditional part of Greek paideia, and dancing and singing were generally considered to go together. (The word 'chorus', after all, means 'dance'.) Even if not everyone had the opportunity to be taught by one of the foremost musical theorists of the time, as Pericles was, the principles of music and the ethical character of different harmoniai would have been familiar. Tragic poets and the actors and choreuts with whom they worked all came from the same cultural framework, and if the actors were confused about references or customs in a given play, they had only to ask the author - who was not only the composer and librettist but often the director and choreographer as well.

The performers of tragedy, moreover, had access to two things which Helfgot and Beeman consider absolutely necessary for a singer who wishes to be able to write the third line and incorporate it into heris performance: money and time. Opera singers who want to be interpretive performers need voice instruction, voice coaching, language coaching, acting coaching, style coaching, and information, very little of which comes for free. The need for all of these different kinds of training means that 'an independent income is almost a requirement for developing a career' (222).

Enter the choregos, whose duty it was to maintain the chorus and flute-player during the six to eight months which a poet had to rehearse his play. (Poets themselves were men of leisure; the starving artist is a modern phenomenon.) That lengthy rehearsal period gave the performers plenty of time to practice simultaneously singing, dancing, and acting, and practice is the way to get beyond the initial interference of movement with song or speech (86).

Helfgot and Beeman never suggest that it is easy for a singer to become a complete performer. No single component of operatic acting is easy, and the combination makes the career a dauntingly difficult one, even leaving aside the state of the profession. Nor would acting in tragedy, alternating speech with song and low voices with high ones, capturing the attention of an audience in excess of 10,000, working in a mask, entering, exiting, and crossing in a very large acting area have been at all easy. In the year 449 the Athenians recognized that acting was demanding enough to merit a prize of its own, like poetry or athletics. While most upper-class Athenians had a sufficient background in dance and music to qualify them for choral work, acting was another matter. The basic skills needed for tragic acting are much the same regardless of the role; it was probably easier to find three talented men with powerful voices to divide up the roles than to find six or eight of the same and have one actor per role. (Baritones often make quite good altos or sopranos, though they would lose their upper range as they got older, just as female altos and sopranos do.)

Acting in tragedy, whether in Greek or in translation, is still not a simple matter. Rarely do modern directors require three men to divide all the roles in a play among themselves, but the roles are still demanding. Many of the things which would have been most familiar to Athenian actors and audiences are extremely foreign to their modern counterparts, especially in the U.S. Masks, if used, can be a ferocious obstacle; the formality of tragic diction is almost as bad. The cultural context of the plays' actions is now almost 2500 years in the past, and an actor can no longer consult with Aeschylus and Sophocles in person. The details of the music of tragedy are lost to us, though its general outline can be reconstructed from the meter and accent of the words. We may not have to hold audiences of ten or twenty thousand spectators, but we have to bring ourselves and our audiences into the world of the play, a world foreign to us and a play written for quite different theatrical conventions.

It is to the would-be producer of, or actor in, a modern production of Greek tragedy that The Third Line is most inspiring. Yes, say Helfgot and Beeman, this kind of theater is difficult and demanding and it is possible to fail spectacularly and bore your audience to tears. That doesn't mean it can't be done well. It takes commitment, resourcefulness, time, and money. (Persistent application of the first two will eventually lead to the latter.) Not everyone who wants to act in or direct tragedy will be up to it, and a classical scholar will probably meet fewer of the genre's requirements than a theater professional.

But we, like the singers to whom The Third Line is addressed, can learn. And we can collaborate, providing the cultural context for those who have the voice and movement training. Nor should we resist our theatrical colleagues when they suggest changes in style to accomodate a modern audience. 'No composer ever thought of his operas as works that would be preserved under glass like some precious porcelain', Helfgot and Beeman write (219). How much more true that is of the tragedians, who could rarely expect more than one performance of a play. And if the acting style of fifty years ago are inappropriate in an opera performed today, regardless of when it was written (68 and passim), the acting style of 2500 years ago is even less appropriate. Performance is about a relationship with an audience. And if you want a guide to performing Greek tragedy, you could do a lot worse than to read The Third Line.

Sallie R. Goetsch
e-mail: Sallie.R.Goetsch@um.cc.umich.edu

COPYRIGHT NOTE: Copyright remains with authors, but due 
reference should be made to this journal if any part of the above is 
later published elsewhere.

Electronic Antiquity Vol. 1 Issue 6 - November 1993
edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington
ISSN 1320-3606

by Kaavya Giridhar