There’s no swordplay in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda, but two of the leads in the Metropolitan Opera’s first production of the work — opening New Year’s Eve — have crossed swords before. As Romeo and Tybalt in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Joyce DiDonato and Matthew Polenzani engaged in a bit of derring-do that inspired me to write the following article for OPERA NEWS three years ago — only to discover that the most unkindest cut of all is that which comes from editors with space limitations. So, for those who wonder how singers manage stage combat, I present the article in full.We’ve seen it all before. The tenor and the baritone can tolerate no more. As tempers flare and voices rise, swords are drawn. And then — nothing. Two or three whacks, and they run off in opposite directions. You’ve seen more convincing swordfights on the playground.
Stage combat, especially swordplay, is one of the most frequently disappointing features of opera, and yet it seems churlish to mention it. After all, singers already meet the challenges of musicianship and acting, sometimes waltzing, too. Now we’re asking for another skill?
But swordplay is a fact of life in Opera World. As tenor Matthew Polenzani puts it, “Certain pieces in the repertory lend themselves to this sort of thing. And that’s the sort of thing I sing.” He estimates that he’s called on to parry and thrust in “a third to a half” of the operas he performs, including Lucia di Lammermoor, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and much of Mozart. “Even in something like Don Giovanni,” he says, “I have occasionally crossed swords with Giovanni.”
I had the chance to see Polenzani’s swordsmanship in action in Robert Carsen’s production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi at Paris Opera, in 2008. Surrounded not only by a team of non-singing professional fencers but also by mezzo Joyce DiDonato (swashbuckling up a storm as Romeo — really, she may have enjoyed that sword too much), Polenzani sounded gorgeous yet seemed less than fully at ease with his épée. Why would he be, I wondered, when he’s got so much else to do in this opera? I set out to talk to him about the conflicting challenges of singing and swordplay, and it turns out that he’s unfazed by a foil.
“Growing up and in young-artist programs — even when you’re singing in choruses — there are big fight scenes,” he says. “You grow up doing it. You have to learn how, how to be safe, how to thrust a sword at somebody to make it look, from an audience standpoint, as if you’re jabbing at their heart, though you’re really jabbing at the upper left arm.
“If you’re doing an overhand smash,” Polenzani continues, almost as if he were giving me a lesson over the telephone, “you can do it from the outside shoulder, but from the audience point of view, it looks like it’s going to land on the head. You can keep your colleagues safe and at the same time lend an air of verisimilitude to the proceedings.”
Verisimilitude is the key, the same goal that drives the vast majority of today’s singers to hone their acting abilities and to watch their figures. In generations past, audiences probably didn’t care whether Enrico Caruso or Jussi Bjoerling could handle a rapier, or whether they looked and acted plausibly heroic. Today’s audiences demand realism. “And a sword helps you identify with your character,” Polenzani insists.
“Character is a huge part of what we do,” he explains. “I suppose if you’re not as interested in the people that you’re playing, [swordplay] could seem like a pain, but you have to deal with it because it’s part and parcel with this genre of opera. It can be a little scary, but it’s fun to do. Anger is one of those emotions that is very easy to tap into, and so it helps you feel more like you are really the person who is singing. This is always the battle anyway, just to try and be as much Romeo or as much Edgardo or as much Tebaldo as you possibly can be, so that the audience, their belief is completely suspended. I love doing it!”
Polenzani began to study stage combat while at the Yale School of Music, one of a number of American conservatories and artist programs that now see fight choreography as an important part of a young singer’s training. “We were taking lessons in how to move our feet,” the tenor recalls, “and how to roll, how to hit the ground, all those things, not just with swords. So you can make a wrestling-match look real, how to throw a punch, how to slap somebody and make a sound but not hurt them.”
A fight choreographer and stage director, Dale Girard says most singers don’t have fight training; however, he adds, the same is true of actors in spoken theater. “I’ll show up for a production of Three Musketeers in a theater company,” he says, “and find that most of the people who are in a swordfight have limited training. I also find in opera, some singers have had no training, some have had some training. It’s kind of a crapshoot.”
Girard has worked at the Met (“They have a phenomenal armory”) on its latest production of Roméo et Juliette and at regional companies from Vancouver to Fort Worth. As a teacher, he’s worked with young-artist programs, at Yale (where Polenzani was his student) and the Hart School, and he’s now Director of Stage Combat Studies at North Carolina School of the Arts. (What’s more, he does stuntwork for films.) He has an advantage when it comes to opera, he says, because on one of those Roméos, he wound up marrying the Stéphano, mezzo Jeanine Hawley.
“Opera singers are usually really gung-ho,” Girard says, “because they want the show to rock and roll. They want a strong dramatic presentation, as well — they got into [opera] because they love it. You’re trying to make it look good, to let the music tell the story and make sure they’re ready to sing at the end of the piece. Don José and Carmen have to fight, Donna Anna and Don Giovanni have to fight, and still be able to sing…. If you’re doing Shakespeare, they don’t care if you’re out of breath at the end of the fight. In fact, a lot of those scenes have fractured prose at the end, to indicate that you’re out of breath. You can wind an actor in theater, but in opera, they need to act winded.”
While Polenzani reminds me that composers typically avoid requiring an artist to sing and fight simultaneously, Girard identifies other important challenges in effective fight choreography for opera. “So many of the things that happen in a fight are preconditioned responses,” Girard says. “Physical activity, especially in the States or Western culture, is usually accompanied by tension. You go into the gym, and they’re groaning, trashing their voices to help them lift — but your vocal cords will not help you lift more weight!
“If you rehearse the breath, work with the artist to make sure they are vocally free and tension isn’t being practiced — a lot of the time, you’re unaware that you’re clenching, if you’re not phonating. That’s just not productive. So if we can address that early, and make sure that the fight — it could be completely safe and no one gets hurt, and you could still damage the voice. Knowing that from the beginning, rehearsing it and checking with the singers, helps avoid the problem,” Girard says, adding, “You have years of conditioning to tense up in physical activity.”
However, he finds that singers, more than actors, possess a “kinesthetic awareness. Their ability to sense and manipulate their vocal instrument translates into the ability to use their bodies effectively. Sometimes they haven’t practiced it, but that sensitivity of the physical instrument that comes from the vocal instrument does come out.”
Though Girard agrees that characters in opera seldom have to sing and fight simultaneously, the line is sometimes fine. “Escamillo sings right after the fight with Don José,” he says. “The uncut piece of score is a good chunk of fight music, but even trimmed down, it’s only two or three bars afterwards when Escamillo has to sing.”
That limits the possibilities for combat — or at least for Escamillo to defend himself. Beyond breath, though, a fight choreographer has extra concerns in opera. The singers have to be able to see the conductor, for example. “And the maestro has a lot to say on tempo and rhythm,” which naturally has an effect on how a fight is staged. Moreover, if the conductor believes there’s a potential risk, “I’ve had them go, ‘I like it, let’s change it now, I have a fear of this.’”
But it’s music that drew Girard to opera. “I just found that the sense of having a full orchestra supporting and playing your fight, was the closest you could get to cinema,” he says. “All the fight music was so beautiful, deep, and rich.” And he speaks admiringly of the Met’s Roméo et Juliette cast — as fighting actors.
“There are stigmas that go on about the Met in the theater community,” he says, “but we’re fighting on a raked stage that’s revolving. The singers were completely open to it, because each step of the way, their concerns were addressed. They were part of the collaborative process.”
Comparing opera to its theatrical antecedents, Girard observes, “You do tend to see more violence in opera than you do in Classical theater. Contemporary theater has gotten bloody — Lieutenant of Inishmore, you’ve got gunfights onstage and people’s heads exploding. That’s American theater right there. I don’t think you’ve gotten quite that far in opera.”
He thinks this over. “But I just worked on Tosca at Chautauqua. You’ve got guns going off, a stabbing, and a woman jumping off a building — maybe theater’s catching up on opera!”