I have previously written about the relationship of art, form and meaning. The article is in this blog. I hope you will refer to it. Let us take as an example Schubert’s great song cycle Die Winterreise. These poems by Wilhelm Mueller take us past representationalism in poetry to a true existential meaning regarding the feelings within unrequited love. It is not enough to sing the notes Schubert has written and the words Mueller has written. That was the old way. Great voices sang these songs with individual word coloring and that was supposed to be art. It was art in a way, but far from all that the song cycle requires. The greater the work the more it draws from the performer the need to put existential truth into it. The singer must become this man who has been so hurt in love, and all without stage movement or costumes. He must use his mind to connect with the character who is saying these words that Mueller and Schubert have put into his mouth. The Stanislavsky method is perfect for just this demand. Just so, let me offer a few methods to help the singer bring Truth to this great work and deliver it to the people.
If you don’t speak German you will need to translate each word and write the meaning of it in your language. In my case that would be English. Then you take 3X5 cards and make flash cards. On one side you put the German word, and on the other side the English meaning. You then drill yourself so that when you sing the German words the English meaning will register in your mind. After a while, your brain will start to think in the German words. Next you read the poems and try to give a meaning to each phrase. This is called oral interpretation of literature. Only when you can deliver the poem with meaning do you begin to sing. Now you have the abstract meaning of the notes and rhythms to suggest to your mind how the character’s mind might insinuate each phrase. You make a choice before each phrase what your insinuation is. After doing a couple of songs in this way, it will come to you that you need to use your imagination to create a back story for this person who is undergoing this Die Winterreise. You write out a biography for him: his name, what happened to him in his early life; all of the psychological information that would make him come to this winterreise. Now you have a back story in your mind. We call these virtual imaginings “internal objects.” Your mind is filled with them as you begin to choose how you will intend each phrase. These intentions are called “the dramatic beat,” and they have to happen BEFORE the musical beat. Your mind must be working faster than the musical beat. If you let the music hypnotize you into its beat you will become a robot and sing without dramatic beats, choices, insinuations. That is what we normally see today. It will surely come to you that the character is undergoing severe feelings from experiences you have never had. Therefore you must find a way of identifying within yourself the essence of these feelings. That is what Stanislavsky meant by “substitutions.” You may have never been so desperately in love and hurt so deeply as this person but just as surely there are things that have happened to you which are of the same essence. Can you remember your first girl friend and how awful you felt when she broke off with you in grade school? Bring up that experience emotionally. Relive it and then sing a phrase thinking of that. It will bring life to it. Each song contains many such needs for substitutions. You rehearse them until you experience the essence of the substitution without having to think about “Peggy” rebuffing your advances in the second grade!!! The substitution doesn’t have to be of the same strength as the character’s, although the stronger the better, it must simple convey the essence of the emotion.
The essence of the method is to STAY CONSCIOUS within the events of the breath, the dramatic choice and the experience the words convey. Don’t let the music hypnotize you into just a singing machine! Let your mind be filled with internal objects before you begin to sing and while you are singing. It will help you to keep the mind moving faster than the music and give you the ability to chose a meaning for each phrase. When the audience experiences performance this way, it is far more gripping and moving than just the experience of hearing a nice voice sing words with a little bit of word coloring!!!!!!!