Jumping In: What happens when an opera singer gets sick.

Today I am motivated to share part of my experience singing opera in Germany that is probably not known by most of my American friends.

This is a Campiello. Streets in Venice are actually tiny alleys, so a Campiello is where the alley opens up to a small square, and then you can keep walking. The entire opera Il campiello is set in here, where there are three families which have been neighbors for many years.

I have a cold with all the trimmings. Stuffy nose, congested air passages, fever and general feeling like grunge. I couldn’t sing today if you held a gun to my head. It is like having a broken arm in sports, you probably could play, but you would lose the game. Nobody wants to hear a singer who can’t sing try to push through a performance, although we all did it, and I did it way too often.

So, let’s say I have a roll like the Count in the Barber of Seville and there is a performance tomorrow night. The house can’t just cancel a performance because I am sick and can’t sing, and for most of my career I was single cast in the roles I sang.

Here is what happens. First, you call the Betriebsburo, the office that schedules everything, and tell them you are sick, and that you are going to the doctor but to get a guest to jump in for you. There aren’t exactly Count Almavivas on every street corner, you have to go looking elsewhere. But, there are enough theaters and singers that you can easily enough find someone to jump in for you. For some operas and roles, the task is a bit trickier.

The guest singer comes to the theater usually on the day of the performance and is shown the blocking for an entire opera by the assistant director and with any luck, the other cast members come to rehearse as well.
Then everyone takes a deep breath and the evening is saved.

Probably the most amazing such performances I did was a very obscure opera called “Il campiello.” A campiello in this opera meant a place in Venice, Italy, where several streets converge and the families that live on that little square interact. There are two male tenor roles where they dress up as Mamma’s and the whole thing is rather hilarious. There are 11 soloists in the opera and there is no chorus.

Well, while I was in rehearsals for “The Nose” by Shostakovich in Osnabrueck, I get a call from Oldenburg to ask if I could come to jump into the performance the next day. Having a dress rehearsal for “The Nose” I couldn’t get out of it until after it was over. So, I drive up to Oldenburg and make my way to the rehearsal stage, where there are a couple of people there to rehearse. The assistant director shows me in a hurry-up rehearsal where I need to go etc. Well, it had been a couple of years since I had done the opera, and it is an ensemble piece, meaning, you are usually interacting with many people on stage at the same time.

Shortly before the end of the rehearsal, they volunteer the information that 6 of the 11 soloists for that evening’s performance were all first-time guests! Over half of the cast was completely new to the production. That means, basically, that it is going to be a crazy performance. Il campiello is a bit like a French comedy where there are a lot of entrances and exits, from different doors and it is all pretty much very closely timed. The good thing about operas is that the music keeps going no matter what.

So, we weren’t sure whether we could remember our music, much less remember what comes next, or where to enter and exit from and so forth. Heck, seeing all of the costumes for the first time in the performance, you weren’t even sure who was who.

The audience was told the situation and that beautiful little theater was packed full for a Saturday night comedy. Audiences love it when things like this happen because it is a unique experience. Wolfgang Ott was conducting, luckily, because he conducted it when I did it in Bremerhaven.
It was a great performance and Wolfgang said it was one of the best performances he had ever been a part of. It was a blast and the audience went wild!

So, getting sick as an opera singer is not a great thing, but sometimes it creates interesting situations, and they become unforgettable moments in your career.

People don’t really realize that opera is actually as much theater as it is music, and it isn’t just dinosaurs roaming the stage in search of high notes to impress with. Plus it isn’t always done in old fashioned rags and sets, which honestly revolt me now. The productions in Europe are often Eurotrash, but more times than not, they are compelling evenings of theater. But the best thing about opera is that it is all 100% live, 100% real (no mikes, amplification) and isn’t always perfect because it is usually so difficult for everyone down to the tuba player. Above all, it is beautiful if you can remember to just listen and realize what you are hearing.

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