Katrin Hilbe at Berlin Opera Academy

Acting Skills Now Fundamental

By: - Jul 28, 2023

The advent of Freudianism somehow severed the mind from the body, but over the past decades, there has been a return to the wisdom of late 19th century philosopher William James who saw the body and mind as deeply interrelated.  

Katrin Hilbe, director of stage and opera, is offering her knowledge of this subject to young opera singers at the Berlin Opera Academy this summer.

Hilbe writes: “Creating the physical character for the stage is part invention, part imagination and part discovery. It is a creative process, it takes time. There is no right or wrong, it’s not an exact science but interpretative, and therefore subject to change."

“You embark on this process long before the rehearsal period begins, and during this period, it is informed by input from the director, and adapted, adjusted, honed as such. It’s hard and fun in equal measure. One day you’ll find things, some days you won’t. That’s how it goes. Find a space that you can walk in, move in, feel safe to explore in, and just do the exercises rather than thinking about them. The discoveries you’ll make will be physical and direct, from within your body. Dare to be terrible in rehearsal, fail big! Rehearsals are your safe space, and directors tend to value bold choices that are terrible over not getting anything.”

We were able to sit in on sessions and to see how Hilbe works her magic.  

What is inarguably true these days, and this has always been so, is that few performers can magnetically connect to an audience with their voice alone.  Lisa Davidsen may be one of them today.  Acting becomes a requirement.  Even the cameras of  HD performances can’t make up for a flattened performance of a very good, but not sublime voice.

This is where Hilbe enters.  Yet she enters from a very special place.  She is a theatre director as well as an opera director and understands that the physical performance of a singer is different from one of an actor.  The voice must be lodged in the performance and vice versa.

The speed at which you move, ranked from one to ten, is the first tool Hilbe deploys.  Among the six singers I watched walk, interpretations of speed widely varies. Only once did Hilbe say, with a grin, “So that is your six?”   It was very slow but 5, 4,3,2 and 1 turned out to be even slower.

Where are the eyes cast?  Each individual gazes in their own place. Yet when this is called to their attention, they can adjust it for the character they are going to portray.  

When Hilbe asked them to get into the position in the room in which they feel most comfortable, many have their backs to a near wall, as though they were Mafiosi protecting themselves from the enemy.  One large man wedged himself between a mirror and the piano, compressing his large body.  

Quickly Katrin establishes that there is no right or wrong.  There is ‘you’ and then there is a character that is going to inhabit you as you sing.  You have to find that character in you.  

Picking an every day action for a character is not easy.  Donna Elvira is not going to iron.  But Fiordiligi might adjust her hair endlessly.  

How much space do you occupy?   Maybe there is a large circle around you which is not to be penetrated without permission.  

“Whenever I touch you, defend your space,” challenges Hilbe.   How do you own space and how does space own you? This is an important distinction, depending on the character's status, their position of power--low or high.  

Hilbe distinguishes between the role and the person, moving beyond Stanislavsky, who started life as an opera singer and trained them early on.  

I was fascinated to watch a young singer without a waist, choose the waist as the center of her character’s being.  It was the correct choice, but not the obvious one. This young woman had been able to put herself away and bring forth the character, against the natural disposition of her body shape. 

If I were a singer and asked to find the center of my energy, I would probably choose a spot at the top of my rib cage and just lower than the space between my breasts. Where lungs are lodged. 

Neither the men nor the women chose this spot.  Were their voices not under consideration? Many chose the pelvic area, perhaps preferring erotic energy to the energy of motion. 

Hilbe says: “The energetic center - the place in your body that “leads” all movement, that is a core. Note, this is not a literal place but a “feel”, so there is no right and wrong. Explore finding it for yourself as YOU, and then explore it for your character, inform it with the things you know about your character and then feel it out.”

A fascinating exercise illustrated how a singer gets through a physical block – in the form of a chair or particularly another actor.  Hilbe stood implacably still and had to be swept away by an arm stroke, or pushed aside.  She darted in unexpectedly and the singer had to quickly get around her lithe body gesture.

Hilbe’s goal is to develop the character with the tools of the body and emotional energy.  Musical and dramatic performances are integrated.

A measure of the success of her teaching was the warm smiles of gratitude on the faces of the students as they grasped what she was telling them and began to figure out new ways to become better performers.  Exciting work at the Berlin Opera Academy.  

Hilbe has packaged a gift for performers to deliver:  “Bringing a gift - work out a baseline for your character before you come to the first rehearsal. It is your starting point and something to bring to the table, allowing the director to have something to work with. It’s an offering, not a demand. It’s from a place of creative generosity, a sharing.”

A not incidental outcome is expanding work opportunities when a beautiful voice and consummate acting talent are combined.