Uta Hagen and the Opera Singer

I am the co-founder and educational director of the New England Opera Intensive (NEOI). One of my responsibilities in my position is to help opera singers (or students pursuing vocal music degrees) to find acting techniques that help support their artistry onstage.

Part of NEOI’s training is in the work and object exercises of famed acting teacher and actor Uta Hagen. Hagen had an illustrious and lengthy career, appearing as the original Martha in Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She also appeared as Desdemona in the first Broadway production of Othello to feature an African-American actor (Paul Robeson) in the title role. Another celebrated role for her was Blanche Dubois with Anthony Quinn as Stanley, in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. 

Hagen disavowed her first book, Respect for Acting, and later clarified and enlarged many of her ideas in her second book, A Challenge for the Actor. This second book is the required text for NEOI’s three-week intensive, and each participant reads and works through these exercises in class.

For the opera singer, much training is spent in the acquisition of language skills, musical knowledge, vocal technique, and repertoire selection. It is rare for singers to get an opportunity to explore genuine acting techniques intended for REAL actors (as opposed to “Acting for Singers” – which is IMHO a poor facsimile). 

I have several reasons why I think Hagen’s work is useful to the singer. The first is that the work is structured similar to barre work for dancers, or scales for singers. Hagen’s mother was an opera singer, and her father – Oskar Hagen – a musician and art critic. Oskar founded the Gottingen Festival, and Uta grew up in a highly cultured musical and artistic home. Since the discipline of practicing is in the singer’s experience, Hagen’s Object Exercises can form the basis of a practiced and refined acting technique which falls under the singer’s pre-existing practice regimens.

The other reason that the Object Exercises are helpful is because they are aimed at ACTION, not EMOTION per se. Each exercise is about becoming self-aware and understanding the importance of asking “What am I DOING?” instead of “What am I FEELING?” in acting work. They are called ACTORS, after all.

Object Exercises give the singer a strong understanding of physical and psychological Destination, help train and understand the use of the Fourth Side (or Wall), and develop skills for staying in the moment, not anticipating or indicating what is going to happen, and heightening sensory awareness.

The exercises culminate in Historical Imagination. This is when the actor/singer will do all of the previous exercises in combination with the added work of an historically remote time period using an operatic character. The opera singer, like the Shakespearean actor, must spend all their time in worlds of history far-removed from their own. Very few operas are written that take place in 2016. The opera singer must do historical research on an ongoing basis to understand culture, clothing, music, manners, and codes of behavior.

To help distribute this information in more detail, I am going to do a 10-part blog series on each of the Hagen Object Exercises as they directly apply to SINGERS. I hope to show how useful the exercises can be in the establishment, development, and refinement of a nuanced acting technique for singers.

Stay tuned!

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