Monday, 3 June 2013

Tension and Release in Opera (part 1)

Tension is a much discussed word in our world of singing. Of course, physical tension in the body, or at least in the wrong places, is one of the enemies of good singing. We learn how to balance tension and relaxation. Where we need a degree of tension to support the sound, to create air-flow, and where we need to let go of tension, such as the shoulders, neck and jaw.

But, my friends, there is one tension that is rarely talked about in singing lessons and college, but which great actors and directors are aware of (don't worry, I'm not including myself in that elevated tribe), and which any good actors training course will develop an awareness of. Dramatic (or psychological) tension.

On a larger scale, most good drama has a build up of tension towards a climactic point, and then a release of tension towards the end. This is often referred to as the dramatic 'arc' of the piece. The more palpable that tension, the more it communicates and carries the audience with it, and the more effective the release, the more satisfying the piece will feel to the audience at the end.

Tension is uncomfortable, release is pleasant. A great artist can hold this discomfort and allow it to rise. A mediocre artist is always short-circuiting and avoiding tension. It is human to diffuse tension in daily life, to smooth our ride.

Notice how if you say something risky for example, you will usually laugh at what you said or keep talking shortly after you said it, to diffuse the tension. What happens if you instead hold the person's gaze, shut up, and keep a serious expression on your face. The tension rises. It is uncomfortable, but can also be very exciting in the right context, such as a flirtatious situation. In a confrontational situation it invariably becomes a status battle. Almost inevitably, if you don't, the other person will break the tension with a nervous laugh or a change of subject. Dramatically exploiting this stuff is dynamite!

For more on status games in acting read Keith Johnstone's brilliant book on improvisational theatre, Impro.

Drama teacher Justin Cash ( defines tension in drama in this way on his website:

"Tension can sometimes be used as an interchangeable term with conflict. But where it differs, lies in the development of suspense in a performance. As the audience anticipates certain outcomes in the plot, the tension builds. An obvious example of rising tension is in a mystery or whodunit. The development of tension usually parallels the advancement of the plot, leading to a crisis or climax. Tension is closely linked with timing."

Tension and resolution are at the heart of music as well of course, and provide its driving force. Classical music is built on structure such as symphonic and sonata forms which develop themes to high points of tension followed by release. A great conductor really knows how to tap into it.

It could be argued that tension and release is the great motive force of life itself, and the cosmos, but this isn't the place to get overly metaphysical in my musings.

In theatre, Michael Chekhov, the great russian actor and teacher, calls this architectural structure the Law of Triplicity. The plot generates, unfolds and concludes: exposition, development, conclusion. There is polarity between the beginning and the end. A transformation takes place in the middle.

This is seen both in the story as a whole, and in each individual character. The climax for one character might not be in the same place as the climax of the opera.

Next time you are preparing an operatic role, see if you can approach it from this perspective. Figure out what the difference is in your character at the start and at the end of the piece.

What is the transformation the character goes through? It may be huge, life-shattering, or subtle. What is the cause of the psychological tension that is building? What is the key moment in the opera, the tipping point in your character's journey? What does your character feel more of as this point nears? What is the effect of the rising tension on the characters body and movement? What is the effect of the release of this tension? The new state towards the end? How can you feel and express this tension at a more profound level?

Playing with the larger scale tension like this can give another dimension to the roles you are singing, giving them a mythical resonance, and pulling the audience into their journey. Without any tension and release your characters may seem flat or uninspiring. It will lack interest. Opera is, after all, all about making things compelling and bringing out the drama in these amazing musical stories.

In part 2 I will look at smaller-scale interpersonal tension and how we can draw on it in our operatic roles.

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