Every theater with a repertory season has gone though the drama of last-minute cancellations due to sickness. The larger houses employ covers, singers who are contracted to know the part and be ready to go on at a moment’s notice (even in the second act), and are required to be in the general vicinity of the theater during the performance. The Met does this. Smaller houses do not have official covers but often roles are double cast, so that both singers are “on call” for each other should one be sick on the day of his or her performance. But this is not always the case, and sometimes a production is centered around one or two particular personalities who sing every performance. It’s a risk, but generally it works out fine.
However, yesterday I got a call — the leading lady’s voice is gone, she’ll come to the show and speak her lines, but she doesn’t think she can sing. I know this feeling quite well — the chords are not approximating in the morning but maybe, just maybe they’ll be better by showtime. Sometimes this is the case, sometimes it’s just wishful thinking. As the star didn’t really know yet, I was put on stand-by status to sing her pieces from the orchestra pit if need be. This is actually not all that uncommon, although it doesn’t happen often — in certain works, one can “jump in”, as it’s called, without knowing too much of the stage direction — you’re told to go here, then go there on this line, and there’s an assistant in the wings whispering “Go to the Countess and take her gloves!!!!!” The more complicated the piece, however, the less likely one can get away with that. Last March I sang a role from the pit, a role I had even done in another production, but the part in this one involved walking forwards and backwards on a conveyer belt onstage during her long aria. There was just no time to acquaint me with the stage.
Well, I did in fact sing last night, concentrating solely on the unfamiliar lyrics and the conductor (he was the personification of calm), and, well, saved the performance. I even got to bow onstage at the curtain call. Lots of applause, warm compliments from colleagues, and then it’s over. Back to work!