Magazine article Opera Canada

Covering the Part: If You're Making Your Career as an Opera Singer, There's a Time When a Company Might Pay You Even When It Hopes You Won't Sing

Magazine article Opera Canada

Covering the Part: If You're Making Your Career as an Opera Singer, There's a Time When a Company Might Pay You Even When It Hopes You Won't Sing

Article excerpt

OPERA HISTORY IS REPLETE WITH ACCOUNTS OF EVERY CONCEIVable variation on this archetypal opera theme: unannounced and perhaps hitherto undiscovered singer triumphantly fills in for ailing opera star--preferably at the last minute on an important opening night--and a major career is instantly launched. Maria Callas, for example, deputized for an ailing Margherita Carosio as Elvira in a 1949 Venice production of Bellini's I Puritani, just three days after singing Brunnhilde in Die Walkure, and became a bel canto sensation. A few turns of the karmic wheel later, Renata Scotto's career received its jump start when the 23-year-old Italian soprano filled in on two days' notice as Amina after Callas bowed out of a touring La Scala production of Bellini's La sonnambula at the 1957 Edinburgh Festival.

But if you look more closely at opera history, you'll see that many of the variations on the theme, though telling, are actually much less dramatic. For one thing, the "undiscovered" singers are rarely "undiscovered," though they may be less well known than the artists they replace. They may be younger artists at relatively early stages of their career, or they may be seasoned professionals who already have some experience with a role. In some of the variations, concerning the biggest houses anyway, they may be hired to be on standby to take on a role in case of cancellation. Obviously, if you are hired as an understudy or cover, you must be thoroughly capable of inhabiting a role and may be very well known--at least within the opera business. So how do companies go about covering themselves in the event of cancellation?

Hiring a cover for every role is beyond the budgets of all but a few companies such as New York's Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera. Others, such as Seattle Opera, have at least partial second casts from which replacements can be drawn. In Canada, the Canadian Opera Company may hire covers for rarely staged operas and premieres--if funds permit. However, for the majority of companies, if a singer is ailing, more often than not it's a matter of a frantic, last-minute search for a replacement. If one is not found, the show does not necessarily go on.

Singers can be sidelined easily. The human voice, almost indefatigable when healthy, is susceptible to a litany of ailments that can reduce a glorious bel canto to a wheezing croak in a matter of hours. The problem of indisposition, according to some people in the business, is getting worse. "Singers seem to be getting sicker than they did," says Speight Jenkins, general director of Seattle Opera. "I'm having more trouble finding replacement singers in the last five years than I did in the first years I was here." But he doesn't balk at the idea of being on the phone for days trying to replace a laryngitis-stricken baritone. "If you start complaining about it, then you should quit being a general director, because that's what they pay you for," he says cheerfully, demonstrating the affable pragmatism that has endeared him to Seattle Opera and its audiences for over 20 years.

The only real way to thwart the scramble for a replacement is to hire covers, which is why the Met hires one for every role in every production. In the 2004-05 season, the company presented 226 opera performances, plus parks concerts. By mid-April, 184 performances had already been given and covers had sung 74 times. That figure rises to more than 100 if you include the cases in which alternative singers were engaged to sing instead of the contracted cover. Why fork out a bundle for covers and then not use them? "If we have enough notice and I can do significantly better than the cover, then I have an obligation to do so," says Met artistic administrator Jonathan Friend matter-of-factly. "If I have six months' notice when Miss X cancels because she's pregnant, then I will absolutely do what I can to make sure that the person who gets up there is the best I can get. …

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