Bodies Infused With Music

March 5, 2010

I’m just been listening to a marvelous BBC Radio documentary about Diagalev’s Ballets Russes. In it, one of the surviving dancers talks about how, in many of the narrative ballets, the task was just to walk across the stage. “Anybody can walk,” she says. But then she goes on to say that walking in time to the music was the least of it. That every part of the body must be invaded by the spirit of the music, that the arms, for example, must be “infused with the music.”

It strikes me that this has a lot to do with acting in opera. We hear much today about making opera dramatically viable, but almost all the talk is about bringing the values of the spoken theater to the opera stage. How is it that, in the past, opera singers were sometimes rivetingly dramatic without even the slightest resemblance to the quite distinct craft of actors in plays? I wonder if it didn’t have something to do with what the old Diagalev dancer was talking about. There is such a thing as having your whole self so possessed by the music that it will be a partner with the composer, with the orchestra, with one’s own voice, in conveying the drama — the specifically music drama that is the whole point of opera. Not, one suspects, some imitation of what goes on in the legitimate theater.

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