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!”