A moving story: In California Opera’s ‘Carmen,’ a deaf acting coach skips the music
There’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes story connected with the California Opera production of “Carmen,” which opens tonight (7 p.m. Saturday, then plays again 2 p.m. Sunday) at the Tower Theatre. We might think of opera as being all about the singing. But the expert acting coach brought in by artistic director Edna Garabedian can’t hear the music.
He’s been deaf since birth.
Pictured above: Robert Schleifer is an acting coach for California Opera.
I caught up with the remarkable Robert Schleifer, a Chicago-based actor and movement specialist, at a recent “Carmen” rehearsal. We sat in a studio doubling as wardrobe storage, me sitting squarely in front of him so he could read my lips, him watching intently, as the sounds of rehearsal — impassioned high soprano notes, liquid tenor phrasings, strains of musical accompaniment, brisk critiques from members of the creative team — wafted in from next door. As we spoke, cast members wandered in and out, some of them approaching to offer their praise for Schleifer’s gifted coaching.
He has lots of acting experience. Schleifer is an Actors’ Equity Association member, the professional actors’ union. His most recent appearances, detailed on his website, include John Singer in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, Tuc in “The Edge of Peace” at Seattle Children’s Theatre, Howie Newsome in “Our Town” at The Actors Theatre of Louisville, and a role in the much acclaimed national Broadway tour of Deaf West’s “Big River.”
He’s also an acting coach. His credits include teaching classes and workshops around the world, including opera programs in Italy and Austria. This is his first time working with California Opera. The summer educational program brings together talented younger singers and accomplished faculty for intensive training. (The culmination is the fully staged “Carmen.”)
But how can he teach opera singers without hearing the music? It’s simple: “I try to teach them how to tell a story through body movements,” Schleifer tells me. “I don’t care about the voice.”
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It’s an ingenious pedagogical technique. By stripping away the vocals and the lush score, he is able to hyper-focus on the physicality of being an opera singer. Humans are natural storytellers, and most of us have an innate, primal sense of reading body language in others (even when we don’t realize it). Yes, the music is a huge part of the opera experience, but it isn’t the only part. You can have the best voice in the world, but if you’re not authentic in terms of acting out the story, a fundamental part of the experience isn’t translated to the audience. And sometimes a singer can get so wrapped up in great music that it’s easy to get lazy and rely on it to do the work of conveying emotion and meaning instead of adding the physical dimension.
Plus, there’s the whole different language thing in opera. Much of the time — in the U.S., especially — audiences need translations for the lyrics in the form of supertitles. If the singers are using their bodies in effective ways to tell the story, it lessens the need to rely on those words alone and reinforces the emotional pull of the narrative.
ON VIDEO: California Opera coverage at 11:05 mark
The acting sessions were intense. They lasted three hours at a time, and by the end, they could leave you a bit crabby, says Linda Baird, one of two singers cast in the role of Carmen. (The other is Alexandra Jirinic.) “I was exhausted, I will be honest,” she says to him. “And, by the end of a session, frustrated, which is probably what you have felt much of your life. I thought I was good with my body. To have to change the way I learn — being forced to tell the story through my body — there was so much more demand on my body than before.”
It can be all about the walk. Schleifer spent a lot of time with cast members working on carriage and bearing. Carmen is proud, rebellious and stubborn, and she doesn’t conform to the stereotype of a weak and submissive woman. “Let me show you,” Baird says to me. She stands up and walks across the room, and as she does, Schleifer pretends to pull her toward him. (It’s almost like one of those old dance moves where you throw out a fishing line and then “reel” your partner in.) “As women, we’re taught to be agreeable, so I have to change that, because that’s who Carmen is,” Baird says. “Robert asked me, ‘Do you have a bitch face? Do you have an angry face?’ And I had to think hard.”
In the end, it’s all about the power of presence. People talk about audiences being good or bad, of coming across as electric or dead. Schleifer can sense that too, absolutely. “I can feel that energy,” he says. Again, our brains are trained to pick up the tiniest clues about how fellow humans respond to us, and they’re as much visual as audible. With his special take on the world, Schleifer can “read” an opera production with as much depth as a person listening to a score. With this weekend’s “Carmen,” he’s looking to a beloved story being told in a fresh, exciting way.
I was at the Sunday matinee performance, and really enjoyed it. Gabriel Manro’s Escamillo stole the show with his comanding voice, stage presence, and bright pink stockings.