The sincerest form of flattery, the only way to learn to act

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I HAVE been taking part in the first season of the European Union Opera, an inspired enterprise focusing on and celebrating young musical talent, orchestral and vocal. As well as a full production of Eugene Onegin and a semi-staged performance of Beatrice et Benedict, there were a series of recitals given by the young singers, coached by expert accompanists. Further, there has been a series of Master Classes given by three great singers now retired; Elisabeth Soderstrom, Regine Crespin and Gundula Janowitz. I attended the last of these, and a remarkable experience it was.

Fraulein Janowitz was almost puritanically unsensational in her method, having the young singers speak the text of the lied very slowly, with sustained tone, over and over until they were entirely in command of it, until it was vibrating in their brains and their bodies. Only then did she allow them to sing and then stopped them bar by bar, challenging their understanding of the rhythm, the note values, the dynamics as marked by the composer. "It is not me who asks this, it is Johannes Brahms!" Much of this she showed by demonstration, singing the passage herself, in a bright, firm voice, scarcely diminished by the years, and then enjoining the young singer to do likewise.

This is of course standard practice in the teaching of signing. It is never, or almost never, done with actors. It has become a sacred tenet of both actor training and professional practise that imitation is a filthy thing; no director any longer dares to give a line reading, and no actor would dream of modelling himself on another. This is a recent development which has its roots in our modern adulation of the twin gods of "truth" and "originality".

But it has long been understood in every other art that these things will only ever be achieved by profound study of the best models. Elgar taught himself composition by analysing Mozart's 40th Symphony bar by bar, and then re-composing it himself, using his own tunes; Edward Bond did the same thing with The Three Sisters. Why not do the same in acting?

It is not a question of learning tricks but in discovering what the human instrument is capable of. In the past, actors used to attend the theatre obsessively, absorbing, analysing, and, yes, imitating, trying other people's performances on for size, seeing what it feels like to say a line in the way Ralph Richardson did. These things can be spoken of analytically but the way to understand them, to learn from them, is to try them out. Of course, it is necessary to transcend the imitation; fortunately, few of us are sufficiently gifted mimics to be able to produce carbon copies of our models. All of the great originals have done this: Olivier, Gielgud, Maggie Smith all acknowledge the influence of other actors. I marvel that no drama school, as far as I know, devotes classes to analysing performances. Most now teach the work of Stanislavsky; and Stanisvlasky's method was directly derived from his intensive study of the performance of Othello by the great Italian actor Salvini.

It is a curious paradox that in giving ourselves over to these two idols of "truth" and "originality", we have produced a palpable reduction of colour and flavour in our performers, as well as a disastrous diminution in technical ability.

There are things that need to be taught; skills, methods of work, especially in the use of language, which cannot be arrived at by osmosis. The tradition of teacher-directors like Guthrie, Gaskill and Dexter, seems to have died out; Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn are the only surviving practitioners.

There is a wealth of knowledge and craft which is rapidly disappearing; it needs to be handed on, forcefully.

I do not know how popular Gundula Janowitz was with her pupils (the audience seemed to think her a bit fierce) but I was intensely moved by her kind strictness, and by her offering up of her own example and experience. It is true that she was not very interested in their interpretations; but in reality they were in no position to give interpretations since they were not yet able to perform the songs as they were written. Brahms was the starting point, not what they felt about Brahms.

Picasso has the last word: "To imitate others is necessary. To imitate oneself is pathetic."