Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Inside the Process: OPERA VS. THEATRE

Monday, July 28, 2014

An Interview with Paula Suozzi

by Marcella Kearns

Terrence McNally's play MASTER CLASS takes us into the world and history of a renowned artist of the world of opera, but it's also an exploration of the discipline, specificity, craft, and toil necessary to navigate the art.  MCT spoke with Paula Suozzi, a Milwaukee-based director of both theatre and opera, about traversing the two art forms.

MCT: From a director's standpoint, what are the differences between the rehearsal processes for an opera versus a play?

Paula SuozziPaula Suozzi: The big difference from a director's point of view is that in a theatrical process it's a little bit slower and more methodical generally.  The actors come in usually having looked at the script and made some decisions, but everything is still to be determined in terms of tempo, pacing, reasons why their characters say what they do, etc.-whereas with an opera singer in an operatic process, it's generally much quicker.  A composer writes into his or her music what the pauses and dynamics are.  An actor is discovering those as they rehearse.

Actors tie memorization to movement.  Some can't memorize their text until they're up on their feet. Opera singers don't get that opportunity.  Staging the opera is compressed because the singers are fully memorized and off book before they show up.  For a new role for their repertoire, they can spend six months to a year with a coach or several coaches-language, music, dynamics, etc-working on their role.  That's before they ever enter the staging process.  So if as a director you have a different idea about a phrase and what it means, you are sometimes asking someone to unlearn what they learned or to unthink what they pieced together.

MCT: Can you step us through part of the process?

PS: With a play, you usually begin with tablework-reading through the scenes and talking about what's happening, what's underneath what the characters are doing and saying.  With opera, generally you have to start staging and talk as you go.  If you have a singer in a major role who already has it in their repertoire, you have to understand as a director that they have opinions that formed that work before.  As a director, you may have different ideas about moments, but you have to work with your overall picture-how people interact, what this phrase means in the music, millions of options.

You have about 24-28 days max rehearsal for a regional opera company, including tech.  With a play sometimes you have a little more time-another 5 days or so for the tech process.  So it can be really tight.  Often in the opera world, you tech before the show is staged-you're working on light cues, etc. before the rehearsal process begins!

MCT: We're exploring the world and history of Maria Callas.  What, to you, are the hallmarks of a great opera singer?

Maria CallasPS: Opera singers, as an absolute necessity, must have a facility with languages.  Whether they speak a language fluently or not, they have to have enough information to know what the other person's saying to them.  That's something that you get very early on because you have to.  You might learn German, Italian, Russian, French… and there are some in English.

Now, in the opera world, there is a lot more emphasis put on acting and the physical life of the character.  In the opera world, voice is the first, most important thing, but acting ability and physical life has a much higher priority than it used to even 10-20 years ago.  As a theatre person first, I appreciate that.  It's wonderful when somebody can meld the two [voice and acting] seamlessly.

Maria Callas actually was a mold-breaker.  She was unique in that she really did bring theatricality to every role she sang.  That made a huge difference in who she was and how she was revered.  It's a new trend now, but she actually possessed that talent.  Pretty amazing.

As a director, I appreciate a collaborative spirit.  I do think in the opera world that is less common mainly because, once again, singers are spending hours every day or week learning music on their own in a room with a piano or coach-a very intense and intimate thing.  The idea that you can then take that intimate work to share with colleagues in an opera with a chorus is a difficult skill to acquire.  When I work with singers who have it, who can really sing to fellow performers on stage, really relate-I just feel like that is so terrific.  That's such a great gift.  That's what I'm interested in seeing.  How do they [the characters] relate to each other?  How do they make the next moment inevitable?  How do we create the moment in which of course they sing?  That comes through collaboration.  It's so rewarding when I work with a singer who understands that.

MCT: I'm an opera fan, but I wonder nevertheless-what advice would you give to someone who hasn't experienced that art form as an audience member?  How might they get the fullest experience out of attending an opera?

PS: Okay.  Some simple things.  Read the supertitles-that will help you follow the story if it's in another language-but don't get so stressed out about reading every one.  The thing about opera is that there is a lot of repeating words.  So get a sense of the story, but then allow yourself to experience the music: how it underscores the person singing.  Let that wash over you and allow that effect to be on you.  Don't feel like you missed a line and therefore lost part of the story.  I tell people that about Shakespeare, too.  With that text, that classical verse-you have to give yourself a break.  Get out of your head and see how you're feeling.  Take in the total picture.

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