“Operatic performers quickly learn how to make a declaration of love, to suffer, to meditate, to die, and so on, and they repeat these forms in all analogous situations that they happen to be in. These are well-known, rubber-stamp effects. Nearly everyone knows them all, and speaks of them scornfully, yet…a majority of singers go right on using them.” That’s how Pavel Rumyantsev described the state of operatic acting in the 1920s, and you’d be forgiven for wondering if much has changed since then. Certainly, few go to a performance of “Il Trovatore” or “Così fan tutte” expecting anything like dramatic realism; at their best, the stylized theatrics of opera performance can be thrilling, creating their own dreamlike reality. But too often, operatic acting is leaden and unconvincing. Stock gestures like wringing hands and shaking fists are commonplace, and some of the biggest stars are the worst offenders.

While stage and screen acting was revolutionized during the 20th century by the thinking of Russian actor-director Constantin Stanislavski and his “System”—later a foundation of Method acting—it sometimes appears as though his innovations passed opera by entirely. But Method acting has a history in opera, and it begins earlier than you might think. Even before his Moscow Art Theatre toured the United States and galvanized famous disciples like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, Stanislavski was trying out his acting techniques with opera singers.

Stanislavski developed his System for stage actors in the early decades of the 20th century. He aimed to collapse the distance between actor and character, seeking performances that simulated, as closely as possible, real-life human experience in a way that was trainable and repeatable. Rather than stagey gestures and booming declamations, he advocated restraint, pressing his actors to model their performances on how people speak and act in life. Most controversially, he pushed them to actually feel inside themselves the emotions they were trying to convey. Isaac Butler’s book The Method: How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act, released earlier this year, chronicles how “The Stanislavski System” became the Method, a school of acting that maintains considerable influence today.

Stanislavski had originally trained as an opera singer himself, but gave up that aspiration when his voice wasn’t up to the task (“We came to understand that it would add no glory to my name,” he later wrote in My Life in Art about his aborted operatic debut as Mephistopheles). But he was to return: After he had achieved considerable stature with the Moscow Art Theatre, in 1921 the Bolshoi invited Stanislavski to found the Opera Studio, where he could train young singers and direct them in fully-staged productions. Butler’s The Method mentions the Opera Studio only glancingly. But Stanislavski’s 1922 production of “Eugene Onegin” predates anything Strasberg or Adler ever did, and some of the earliest formalized classes in the Stanislavski System were taught to a group of opera singers.    

Rumyantsev, one of the Opera Studio’s young artists, meticulously documented the rehearsals for several of Stanislavski’s productions, including “Eugene Onegin” and “La Bohème.” These notes were later collected into a book titled Stanislavski on Opera, published in English in 1975. In its pages, you can see the master painstakingly teaching young singers to question their assumptions about what operatic performance can be.

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Rumyantsev describes how in those days singers typically fixed smiles on their faces, a technique “intended to convey an impression of lightness, a complete lack of any effort,” regardless of the content of the song. Stanislavski encourages the performers to abandon the smiles and imagine themselves into the emotions conveyed by the text. He’s often harsh with them: “You did nothing but stir the air and sang to the microbes in it,” he tells a singer after one particularly lifeless performance.

The most interesting parts of the book are the early sections, particularly the work on “Eugene Onegin” where the singers and director are new to each other and still discovering how to work together. We see Stanislavski scraping off the crust of accumulated performance tradition, which even by the early 1920s had grown thick around Tchaikovsky’s opera. The libretto’s stage directions call for Madame Larina and the Nurse to be making jam in the opening scene, but Stanislavski would have none of it: “The impression of a meditative, calm, thoughtful stillness is so clearly palpable in the music that one can not possibly bring to mind great pots of boiling jam.”    

He advises singers not to try to “make an aria” out of dramatically insignificant passages. “Why are you trying to show off your voice to us? You have a lot more singing ahead of you and we shall readily discover what kind of a voice you have,” he tells the singer playing Lenski. He’s the enemy of superfluous gestures, dismissing them as tacky: “Actors on stage are often fearful that the public will be bored if there is not enough gesturing, and therefore they go through a whole lot of motions. But the end result is random and trashy.” He forbids his singers from trying out movements in front of a mirror—“that is a dangerous thing to do”—lest they devolve into posing. Cliché, sentimentality, showing off, and playing to the audience are the cardinal sins for him. 

Many of the things Stanislavski insisted on are uncontroversial in opera performance now. It’s taken for granted that singers should not break character to showboat for the audience, that they should strive for clear diction to make the text intelligible, and that movements on stage should follow some kind of narrative logic. No one would object to his dictates that the bohémien artist Marcello should look like he knows how to handle a paintbrush, or that the country dancers in Act II of “Onegin” should dance differently from the aristocrats in Act III. Some of his innovations are common in performances today, like giving chorus members individual personalities with their own miniature dramas.

But those who believe that Regietheater—“director’s theater”—began with, say, Patrice Chéreau’s 1976 “Ring” at Bayreuth might be surprised to see the license that Stanislavski took in the 1920s with his repertoire. He tosses out all the libretto’s stage directions and doesn’t hesitate to cut scenes that don’t further the dramatic action, like the peasant dance in “Onegin” or the children’s chorus in “La Bohème.” He gives “La Bohème” modern sets and costumes rather than picturesque 19th-century ones. He also regularly overrules the conductor when it comes to musical decisions, and gives direction to individual members of the orchestra. While some of these moves are now well within bounds for directors today, others would still be considered to be egregious overstepping.

Even more controversial among both singers and audiences, however, remains Stanislavski’s view that the musical aspects of performance should always be subordinate to the drama. For him, vocal beauty was a distraction at best and “anti-artistic” at worst, nothing more than a vehicle for crowd-pleasing. (This view has its proponents today: In VAN, Barrie Kosky, the director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, told Ben Miller, “I always prefer the singer who is spectacular on stage to the singer who has the most perfect voice.”) Stanislavski’s assertions that singers should never have to look at the conductor, or even think consciously about the music (their attention, in his view, should be directed exclusively to dramatic action and inner feeling) are highly dubious. And the fact that some emotional states are directly antithetical to effective singing—think of throat-closing sadness, or the shallow breathing of terror—is a problem he simply wasn’t interested in addressing.   

Stanislavski had the advantage of working with young singers at the beginning of their careers, who were all eager to please him and reluctant to question his methods. “The core of our Studio will consist of good singers of what we may call average talent…who cannot be thrown off balance by the temptation of becoming stars,” he declares in the opening chapter, implying that his preferred artists will be obedient and malleable. He also expected a level of devotion that we would now call exploitative. He exploded with anger when the students requested a single-day holiday break: “What kind of artists are you if you work only on weekdays and then rest on holidays? A true artist works every single day, every hour of his existence, all his life.” Vocal fatigue was evidently not a concern he took seriously.

Operatic acting still looks old-fashioned to us, now that our expectations have been raised by decades of subtle and highly naturalistic acting in films and television. But the core of Stanislavski’s vision for opera has generally won out. Although the influence of “Live in HD” performances might be overstated, most performers nowadays at least attempt some measure of emotional verisimilitude, and directors and set designers avoid “park and bark” staging. This has largely been for the good; few audiences would want to return to the “concerts with costumes” style of performance that Rumyantsev describes as the old status quo. In general, “music vs. drama” is a false dichotomy in opera, and when at its best the two are mutually reinforcing. Many performances would indeed benefit enormously from more sophisticated staging and acting (hip-thrusting passed off as ribald humor, for one, would not be missed). But when opera fans describe the performances that thrilled them the most, Chekhovian subtlety is rarely part of the package. They’re more likely to talk about beautiful, powerful singing, with that wallop of over-the-top sensory and emotional intensity that opera excels at delivering.

At the end of each section of Stanislavski on Opera, Rumyantsev quotes the press reactions to each Opera Studio production. The reviews always praise Stanislavski effusively by name but are much more muted in their words for the cast. “There was no one among the young artists who struck us as being phenomenally gifted by nature with a special voice,” says one review. “It is necessary to say that in the cast of ‘The Tsar’s Bride’ no one gave evidence of outstanding talent.” Another says, “All of them maintained the highest level of mastery in acting even if the vocal side of their accomplishment was somewhat weaker.” It’s exactly how the master would have wanted it. ¶

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Cecily Carver is a Seattle-based writer and a former blogger for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. She writes about books, opera, the piano, and other subjects for her weekly newsletter, The Amateur.