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What Monkeys Can Teach Opera Singers

When I begin to create a new opera, one of the first things I do when the cast is all gathered onstage, is to stand in front of them and ask the cast to “do what I do”. I then raise my right arm. In over 50 years of working with singers from more than 50 different cultures, the almost inevitable reaction is that each member of the cast will also raise their right arm, some a little reluctantly, going back and forth between arms, but all usually settling on their right arm- as that is what everyone else seemed to be doing. Of course this might make some sense to some, as the inclination might be to actually “do what I do”.
But there have been occasions, and these occasions have brought me extraordinary joy, when singers have instinctively mirrored my action. These few singers who raised their left arm to mirror my action, actually become standard bearers in our production for transmitting emotion. They were able to instinctively make staging decisions without being told what to do, they were open minded and able to be physically expressive. This was no surprise. They had survived the establishment’s desire to make all children “think before they speak” and many music educators’ goal to put cognitive development before feelings.

But what is the future for those who easily empathize? Why are they so few in number, especially in our artistic community? What can we do as a society to increase the number of artists who are connected to their primary impulse, meaning their instincts- their able to act “before” thinking.



What does the Macaque Monkey and the discovery by scientists in Parma, Italy in the 1990s have to contribute to our search for empathy? And why is this ability so essential for The New Renaissance in Operatic Art and the healing of our society?

Stay tuned for next article upcoming soon.

Opera Singers