José-Miguel Fernandez-Dols, Pilar Carrera, Cristina Casado, The Meaning of Expression: Views from Art and Other Sources, VEPSY, pg.11 In the study with paintings referred to above [135 works from the Prado Museum in Madrid painted between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries], more than one third of the Prado paintings with an intense emotional subject displayed neutral faces…. we may ask ourselves why almost no artist, over six centuries was capable of perceiving the facial movements linked to basic emotions…….faces are intrinsically influential irrespective of their emotional content and interact in complex and as yet unknown ways with the context in which they are displayed.
Artists, over many centuries, have not resorted to the prototypical expressions, because painting emotion consists not in painting a particular, specific expression, but rather a pattern of movement in which no isolated gesture has a particular meaning outside of its context and sequence. In this vein, neutral faces may be much more readable as emotion than any expression. Expressions can become grotesque, unnatural grimaces rather than balanced representations of facial behavior linked to an intense emotion; on the other hand, neutral expressions can serve as representations of particular sequences of facial behavior. For example, the painter chooses the neutral face as the departure point for all the future actions entrained by a particular context. Interestingly enough, most of the smiles found in the works from the Prado are displayed by vulgar, drunk or crazy models, or by children. Smiling was not linked, as it is today, with beauty; a fixed, open smile was a sign, not of happiness, but of simpleness.
The lesson we learn from these paintings is that expression is an interactive action “entrained” by the context. As Ginsburg and Harrington have pointed out, emotion is action in context. The context “feeds forward” the sequence of facial action, establishing the path for the future expressive action. The link between expression and emotion is only indirect, and mediated by the motives and strategies linked to a particular sequence of actions. Thus, the emotional expression takes place within the context of a broader system of events and social relationships that are necessary for giving emotional meaning to any facial behavior.
In fact, authors are beginning to discuss their findings, as painters did for centuries. Some authors  conclude that expressions of emotion are mediated by social or interactive factors, while others [40, 41] have suggested that facial expressions are produced not by emotion but for social reasons, or as a result of other psychological processes not necessarily linked to emotion.
In any case, the future of the study of facial In any case, the future of the study of facial expression should take into account that facial expressions are not objects or concepts but events. Research on facial expression of emotion, like research on many other psychological processes, should pay more attention to the difference between objects and events . Objects persist across time, whereas events last for a specific period of time. In our view, any facial expression is a unique event. People can categorize events but they cannot recognize a particular instance of an event because a given event can only be experienced once. Therefore, people process events guided by concepts.
Facial expressions, then, are episodes that are experienced only once; concepts help to process these episodes in terms of emotions, motives or other sources of information. Nevertheless, the concepts that people use for making these categorizations do not necessarily provide an objective explanation of the causes and dynamics of facial expressions. In other words, people may attribute some emotions to some facial expressions because, for centuries, a particular culture has linked certain facial expressions
to certain emotions, or because people like to explain behavior as a consequence of emotion, or for other reasons. Nevertheless, this consensus on the attribution of expressions to emotions does not necessarily mean that facial expressions are expressions of emotion. Again, an example from art can help us to understand this point: the failure of the neo-Platonic program –in which Renaissance painters tried to represent the actual expression of particular virtues or passions– gave rise to an alternative approach to the representation of abstract or invisible objects in art. This alternative view, of Aristotelian inspiration, approached expression in terms of “allegory”, using a complex language in which expressions might be considered not as indices but as icons of emotions. Following Peirce’s classic typology  of signs, there are codes made of symbols, indices and icons. A symbol bears an arbitrary relationship to its object (e.g., the word “gato” is the Spanish symbol for a small domestic feline we might see sleeping in our backyard), an icon has a relationship of similarity to its object (e.g., a painting of a woman, as an icon of woman), and an index is physically connected to its object (e.g., smoke as an index of fire).
The FEP claims that a facial expression is an index of emotion, i.e., a substantive aspect of the emotion itself. Our hypothesis is that facial expressions are icons of emotion. As iconic allegories of emotion, facial expressions are neither causally nor functionally linked to the experience of intense emotion, but they can convey the experience of emotion with greater or lesser success, depending on their “readability” for observers.
The similarity of an icon to its object does not depend on the similarity between icon and object; in fact, in many cases a convincing icon has nothing to do with its object. The canvas, the colors, the drawn lines, etc. have practically nothing to do with the flesh, shape and features of a human being; the similarity between icon and woman comes from a conceptual process in the observer who is capable of reading, in a particular culture, a particular kind of bi-dimensional representation know as “a painting”.
The similarity of an expression to an emotion is also conceptual, and involves a complex process in which an event is processed as a static grimace that is not even necessarily present at the time at which the actor is feeling a particular emotion. Fridlund , for example, claims that facial expressions usually attributed to emotions are probably linked to social motives associated with episodes in which people feel particular emotions. For example, smiling is an expression of affiliation but not of happiness; the link between smiling and happiness may be due to the fact that happy people are usually more sociable; crying is a sign of helplessness, but helpless people are usually (but not necessarily) sad, and so on. As events, facial expressions are flows of behavior. Expression is movement, and no particular pattern of muscular movements can be described as the “true” expression of emotion.
- Smiles do not begin to appear in portrait pictures until well into twentieth century.
Copyright © by Karen Saillant
International Opera Theater was created as a chamber opera company to bring artists of diverse cultures and artistic mediums together to share a new paradigm in the operatic experience. Through a unique process of self discovery, developed by Karen Saillant, founder and artistic director, during her more than 50 years of work with musicians, actors and artists, artists are able to connect with the primary impulse and natural inflection mechanism of the human voice as well as the innately expressive potential of the body.
International Opera Theater explores what Leonard Bernstein in his 1970s Norton Lectures at Harvard spoke of as the universal grammar that underlies human speech and in so doing seeks to discover how we might more effectively and spontaneously communicate through music, through the arts in general and ultimately through all of our social interactions.
Breath and The Human Voice
In addition to the why of the way we talk, I am interested in the why of the very sounds we use to communicate and the way in which we allow these sounds to be made through us. When we can trust our voices and respect and confide in the sounds we make, without the need to check on the sounds or the addition of tension and sub glottal air pressure-a phenomenon that is so prevalent in so much communication on the operatic stage these days. When vowels and consonants are produced with ease, as a result of the easy passage of air over the vocal chords, only possible when the ribs can place an even and equal pressure on all surfaces of the lung and this only possible when the respiratory system is in a reflexive state (meaning controlled by involuntary and not voluntary muscles) the result is the production is a frequency sound-a sound that has a fundamental pitch and all of the naturally occurring overtones. Frequency sounds are healing sounds. Additionally I am interested in the ways in which spontaneous and free bodies are able to offer frequency sounds, filled with natural inflection, to the audience – much in the same way as a baby’s babbling, prior to speaking, is able to communicate to a mother or father.
Leonard Bernstein, in his Norton Lectures at Harvard in the 70s, states that he believes a universal grammar underlies human speech. This larger sense, universal communication through music, offered through stories that are delivered by the singing voice and the body, especially in the language, using the operatic medium, is the focus of International Opera Theater. Hundreds of volunteers and professional musicians have come together from more than 35 different countries in the past 8 years to explore and continue to develop the tradition of Italian operas that communicates on a visceral level. We engage a unique type of classical singer: one who, in addition to possessing the operatic training to sing the standard repertoire, is deeply interested in the natural inflection of the human speaking voice. These actor-musician-artists physically interact with pieces of sculpture (which have been created as costumes) as well as large 100 foot pieces of fabric. They allow their bodies to be expressive, collaborating with the natural inflection mechanism of the singing voice to enable their audiences to let down their defenses and feel. These unique kunstgewark artists bring us one step closer to understanding why opera is such a powerful resource for communication and the reason why the operatic artist can and must lead the way to world understanding.
Since 1970 I have been creating original theatrical pieces and performing in and directing operas. In 2000 the violent death of my husband made me realize that I had to return to Italy where, before my marriage, I had been engaged in an operatic career. The newly restored 18th century Teatro Avvaloranti was offered to me by the city of Citta’ della Pieve as a location where I could work on the stage for one month to explore and experiment with my operatic philosophy. I chose to create world premiere operas and base my premieres on Shakespeare, as his stories engage Comemdia dell’Arte archestypes. These archetypes resonate throughout all cultures. Richard Wagner tells us that “We are all Atelans” He is referring to the town of Atella, in Campagnia, Italy, where the Atellan Fables were born. It was based on these pre Roman theatrical archetypes that the first professional actors in the world, calling themselves Comemdia dell”Arte actors, and performing only indoors (not outdoors as many mistakenly think) for the nobility of Italy, in 1538 were documented as presenting the first paid public performances of theater. Each actor specialized in one particular character and each spoke in his and her-(yes, the actress came onto the stage in Commedia in 1560-long before the actress came onto the stage in England) own dialect (language). As a protegee of Maestro Antonio Fava, the foremost modern day expert on authentic Renaissance based Commedia dell’Arte, I have adopted this ancient classical improvisational style into my work. As a director. I have brought together a variety of international personalities including American composers, a South Korean sculptor, an Indian architect, Italian conductors and a group of multi national actor/musicians to create what might be the only operatic organization in the world committed to the exploration of intuitive communication modalities. L’Universita’ Per Stranieri in Siena, the only Italian university given authorization to degree foreigners in the Italian language, was so impressed with our experiment that they documented our work on a DVD Though the didactic value of our project is potent, the main goal is to create new operas that speak to the audience, expand their frame of reference and ultimately allow them to feel.
Some Opera Background
In Florence, Italy, toward the end of the Renaissance, a group of concerned poets, musicians, humanists and intellectuals felt that the music of their day had become corrupt and that by returning to the simple melodic style of the Ancient Greeks, that music, as well as the society that had created the music, could be improved. These men were later to be dubbed The Florentine Camerata. Their experiments eventually led to what we now recognize as the first “opera”. Underlying their belief was the idea that the melody of dramatic vocal music should interpret the feeling of the music by utilizing the natural inflection of the speaking voice, under the influence of the authentic feelings which gave rise to the emotion.
By1849, opera had become “grand opera” and Richard Wagner would call the performances monstrosities, condemning the focus on bravura singing and sensational visual effects that he felt separated the public from the visceral reaction, the emotional response, that should have been theirs when experiencing an operatic production. Wagner would call for a new kind of opera and coin a word to describe it: “Gesamtkunstwerk” the synthesis of painting, sculpture and architecture with music, poetry and movement, the same combination of art forms that had been imagined by the Florentine Camerata.
Here we are in the twenty first century and we still often witness operatic productions that promote bravura, loud singing, that have no relationship to the inflection of the spoken text. Excessive and meaningless stage effects take away from the visceral responsiveness of the audience and stage movement is stiff and un-spontaneous, preventing the audience from being able to let down their defenses and enter into the expanded frame of reference possible only through a synthetic, metaphorical, intuitive presentation, the kind of theatrical experience that must exist if the audience is to be changed/healed/have a transcendent experience, one able to positively impact them long after the performance is over.
Another essential element that is missing from these performances is what I will term guided collective inspiration. Instead of working to engage the artistic spirit and collective unconscious of the group, most directors tell singers where to go and what to do and coaches mostly tell them how they should do it. Singers become self conscious and put up their defenses and that is it. The artistic spirit is dead and the ability to self organize on the stage, just as we organize ourselves in daily life, enabling the audience to see in front of them an artistic creation, divinely proportional and related, in fact, to our most profound abilities at problem solving and spontaneity, is gone.
In my work, I seek to create an environment in which the actors are able to organize themselves on stage in the same spontaneous way (unconscious concensus) that we organize ourselves in daily life. I told the audience at The Davinci Art Alliance this last night as I spoke to them about my work in Italy. I pointed out the fact that they were all perfectly capable of choosing the seat where each of them was sitting and I was fairly sure that the gentleman to my left on the front row was not sitting there frustrated because the woman who was the president of the organization, who had taken a chair on my far right was, in fact, in the chair in which he had wanted to sit. Everyone laughed. Yet, we accept the director as the decision maker for actor-musicians and as such they make some pretty silly decisions One would think that an actor could decide when and where she/he should sit for her/his or herself. Sounds strange, yet we readily accept this error and even pay people to make these decisions. Oftentimes, the more specific and controlling the director, the more money he/she will receive. Not to long ago I was listening to a director who announced that he was the highest paid opera director in the world. He went through an explanation for the way in which he controlled ever single gesture, every single movement. How coudl we have come to this?! In my opinion this type of stage organization creates a “blocked reality” movement which the audience can identify as lacking in spontaneity, lacking in the personal history that allows us to make choices and so they are not able to deeply engage in the stage action.
In a recent production of Brundibar and the Children of Theresienstadt, where I was working with 35 children, one of the most exciting moments was when all the children came running onto the stage from the playground outside. They began to engage in activities that had come directly from their own imaginations. Interestingly enough, not one child duplicated the actions of another/ They had been through a ritual I call planeing and they understood the rules of self organization on the stage. Only a few of these children had had “stage experience” and yet they were all able to create a dynamic, organic spontaneous life onstage, because they had been convinced that life onstage, except for the few basic instructions, was no different than their life off the stage. This was thrilling to see and incredibly satisfying for the children themselves, as their individuality and ability to work as a group were both celebrated…
PART II upcoming.
Copyright © Karen Saillant