The Show Must Go On

While sitting in on rehearsals of John Adams’ Nixon in China at the Met I’ve been lucky to have heard some great stories about all kinds of operatic happenings and mishaps.

One of the best stories involved the time that Ben Heppner and Debbie Voigt were singing Tristan, which had been billed as the production of the century by critics. What happened was:

1) Heppner got sick, canceled, and flew back to Toronto.

2) Debbie Voigt got sick and walked offstage, leaving the replacement Tristan (who had never performed the role before) alone in the middle of the Act II love duet.

3) The new tenor was swept into the prompter’s box by a malfunctioning piece of scenery.

Having several times witnessed conductors of symphony orchestras restart a movement or section of a piece, I’m intrigued; after all, that’s kids stuff compared to what can go wrong when lights, props, and staging directions are added to the mix. Yet the impression I’ve gotten is that true “restarts” are comparatively rare in the world of opera, perhaps because the stakes are even higher.

As the artistic director of another opera company once put it to me, “We prepare for the worst. And the worst-case scenario is so bad that we’re usually over-prepared!”

One thought on “The Show Must Go On

  1. ScottG

    As someone who works as a repetiteur / opera accompanist / vocal coach to fill my musical year up apart from my composing, I can say that this is very true, and that is precisely why opera conductors are a completely different breed from orchestral conductors. The opera conductor’s job at almost all times is to somehow control 8 different chaotic elements and make them all seem like they fit. So the bass runs out of breath, the scenery falls, the light cue is mis-called, the tenor is sick, the soprano is feeling especially diva-ish and holds all the high notes for an extra second or two, the monitors are broken so the singers can barely hear the orchestra… and the conductor moves ahead, trying to pick up all those threads as they go. It’s amazing work. They not only conduct, but also keep chaos reined in.

    Plus, the big bonus opera has over orchestral work: Stage Managers. They are geniuses. They do the same thing I just said the conductor does, only from a tiny booth, and without directly controlling anyone on stage. Great stuff!

    Reply

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