It’s an on-stage piano rehearsal – everything is in place except the orchestra, and the original director of the opera, Yoshi Oïda, is with us for the first time.
He has stopped the run-through to work on a scene. I am in my usual place, stage right, sitting in the shadows, waiting for my next cue; an ever present and attentive ‘servant of the stage’. Dean, a chorus member with Opera North, leans in and whispers to me ‘You are the invisible actor’, which is witty because I spend much of the show lurking unseen in the dark, but also knowledgeable. ‘Very good’, I reply, ‘I have read that book’.
The Invisible Actor is Oïda’s treatise on acting, drawing on his Japanese roots, his long association with Peter Brook, and beyond. It is a chronicle of his method that ‘acting is not about showing presence or displaying technique […] the audience must not have the slightest awareness of what the actor is doing […] the actor must disappear.’ It’s a profound premise in theory and, from my detached position, fascinating to observe in practice.
Yoshi is directing the chorus – a scene where the young men depart by sea for Venice. The first thing he does is re-align a chair. ‘The chair must be like this’, he says. It is a fractional adjustment, but the aesthetic is immediately better, and he continues with a similar precision. When showing the ladies how to act a farewell, he uses an outstretched arm and an open (not flat) palm. Again, a fractional but important subtlety – wave goodbye ‘like you want more’, he says. The men are encouraged to move freely and to interact, re-aligning their focus away from themselves and in to one another. His method works, suddenly my awareness of the singers’ vocal technique begins to vanish beneath the story.
Oïda can be abrupt – ‘Who are you talking to? What do you want from them?’ – and demanding – ‘Show off your bodies to the public!’ he jokes loudly when he is not seeing what he wants. But, in my experience, this is not uncommon among theatrical high achievers. I remember attending an open meeting for directors with Dominic Dromgoole, where he talked, very interestingly, about the audience/audience relationship, but in the manner of someone describing a tiresome bus journey. For such people, it must be frustrating to be continually pointing out what is, to them, obvious.
Death In Venice is Benjamin Britten’s final opera, written at a time of illness and near to the end of his life. So important was it to him that he postponed essential heart surgery until its completion in 1973. It is a mature work, free from the artistic constraint of gratifying an audience and, as such, enormously honest. ‘It very much reflects Britten’s own situation at the time’, notes conductor Richard Farnes, ‘It’s an opera about a man who, for quite a lot of the piece, is dying.’
The central role of Aschenbach, a respected writer, is reprised by Alan Oke – he has sung the part in every outing of this production to date – and he knows Britten well, having excelled as Peter Grimes earlier this year, in the unique outdoor setting on Aldeburgh beach.
In one scene, Aschenbach is seeing his love, Tadzio, for possibly the last time. Oïda is altering the action in a way that improves the stage picture, but makes it more difficult to sing; Oke must now communicate away from the audience. It can be a tough call, as a director, integrating an actor’s ideas with an overall artistic vision, and in a well established production such as this, one might expect some resistance to redirection. I’m interested to see how they handle it.
‘Can you do it?’, Oïda calls out with characteristic energy from somewhere in the dress circle. Oke is unquestioningly deferential, ‘Oh yes’, he replies from the stage, and with mutual respect and thanks, the master director shouts back elatedly, ‘A great actor can do anything.’
© Tom Neill, 2013