What Would a Staging Look Like Without Them?

By · Title Image Screenshot from a production of “Carmen” by Calixto Bieito at La Fenice Opera House · Date 8/15/2018

Opera is a remarkably durable art. Sitting through “Parsifal” in 100 degree heat at Bayreuth recently, and hearing the couple behind me making chitchat during the final chord, I was surprised to notice that I still was transported by the work. But if anything threatens to break the spell, it’s the stereotypical operatic gestures that are so common as to be completely devoid of meaning, and yet still manage to make it into almost every production—including Yuval Sharon’s justly praised “Lohengrin.” Here are some of the worst offenders.

7. The Chorus Congratulations

Something good happens to the hero, and the members of the chorus hug and congratulate each other. They rest their arms on top of each others’ shoulders, singing joyously into their neighbors faces. No matter the setting of the opera, they always seem to be members of a tight-knit village with nothing else going on and no interests of their own. In real life, mobs are generally threatening; the happy mobs of opera are pretty creepy, too.

6. The Sexy Dance

The first thing to remember about opera’s sexy dance is that it’s not actually sexy. It always involves gyrating hips, arms aloft, and pointed fingers. Its connection to other known forms of human dance is tenuous at best. Probably the best that can be said about it is that it’s not hard to do while singing.

5. The Kneel of Desperation

What else can you do with the Wagnerian instruction to be “deeply moved”? Mere mortals might cry or even sit for a moment, but opera singers fall to their knees. From there, you know what’s coming: palms raised to the heavens, face aloft, before the inevitable fall.

4. The Thousand-yard Stare

Is something coming from the distance, or does the person in the front row just have a pimple? The high-school play recommendation to find a point in the back of the room and fix on it is popular with opera singers. Actors, on the other hand, tend to find ways of not completely ignoring the people watching them.

3. The Conversational Row

Yes, I want to see the singers too. But opera is the only place I’ve seen people having a conversation where not one single participant is looking at the other. There has to be another way of showing that the discussion isn’t going well than cold shoulders—or backs, to be more precise—all around.

2. The Expressive Palm

A lot of opera’s gestural clichés could be avoided by the director telling the singers what to do with their hands while they sing. While Matthias Goerne thinks it’s better for singers to just stand still, it’s admittedly hard to perform expressive music without doing something. The expressive palm, however, ends up making an aria about anything seem beseeching.

1. The Hand on Heart

Perhaps the worst offender of all, the hand on heart follows a simple pattern: emotions come from the heart (they don’t), and the character is feeling something strongly (yes, but what?). Similarly to the above, this probably comes from the singers feeling like they need to do something with their hands. Be my guest, just don’t do this.