In the past few days I have read reports, one in particular through the AP wire, that there was a last-minute casting substitution due to illness of a singer in a major American opera house. The two singers involved are people I happen to admire and like. Both are stars. This is not about them. Rather, it is about the PR hype. The news blurb made it sound as though the replacement was a surprise, out of the blue. It was then revealed that the replacement, who knew the role very well and had much success with it, was specifically contracted "in case" the main star became ill. A substitution is nothing new or earth shattering. It happens all the time and is not usually breaking news. Why this made a splash is beyond me. As a matter of fact, it only really should be news to the 4000 or so audience members, who happen to be present at the performance.
In reality, said company has at least two understudies, or "covers" as they are called in the opera biz, for each major role. We singers are only human and our voices -- two little strings of fiber in our throats -- sometimes cannot function when we are ill, especially since we are not artificially amplified.
There are many hard-working singers who do little but cover. They are paid pretty well and have to be within 20 minutes of the theater or, in the case of live broadcasts, in the building. They need to be available until the final entrance of their character. It has been this way at least for the past 30 years and probably more at one major opera house I know of.
Most of the singers who have gone on last-minute never receive much attention, save for the appreciation of the public at the end of the performance. Sometimes a cover is in the unenviable position of replacing someone extremely beloved and famous. When the announcement is made prior to curtain, the audience moans. Ouch.
Yes, the company does need to costume the replacement and, if it is really a last minute substitution, this does cause a flurry of activity in the costume shop. But regular covers have fittings "in case."
It is a pity and a reality that sometimes a cover will rehearse and be present but then someone is brought in at the last minute instead. I have no knowledge if this is the case here. However, I do feel badly for the covers in these cases as they miss their big opportunity and also have done their part with the full expectation of going on. Sometimes, though, a cover contract does include a promise of one or two performances later in the run. It is also the theater's prerogative to cast how they wish whether or not it is ethical.
Early in my career I was often covering Frederica von Stade. I never went on for her but it was a lovely way to get to know her and also to learn the roles. I once was brought in to cover someone as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier because the guest conductor wanted to be sure the cover was equally as good as the original singer. In other words, they did not hire a regular "house" cover. At other times, I have agreed to cover without being guaranteed a performance because I love the work or the production. By the way, all covers are rehearsed prior to the opening.
In a few cases abroad, I flew in about an hour before curtain to step into a role in a production I had done often. This was pretty easy as many productions were done in more than one company. I also remember being 8-months pregnant when the artistic administrator of the Royal Opera Covent Garden told me prior to the performance, that there was no cover and would I let them know in advance if I thought I might be going into labor. I found this quite humorous considering I had never given birth before and had no idea about the timing of such events.
I know a few singers have made their debuts because of my own illness. It was a relief to know there is someone who could readily replace me. Imagine having to go on ill, unable to really sing, or to have to cancel the entire show, therefore causing the company and colleagues to lose income.
One time I was actually onstage in a final rehearsal when one of my colleagues unexpectedly decided to leave the stage. The cover jumped up out of the audience and continued the role in her street clothes. I made my Lyric Opera of Chicago debut prematurely when the mezzo singing Rosina fell ill. I got the call that morning and met with the maestro prior to the show. My colleagues could not have been nicer and I will always appreciate that since I was a total nobody by comparison.
I think covers have nerves of steel and a particular make up that allows them to work in high adrenaline situations. They need to be present but unobtrusive at rehearsals for the main cast. They also do not wish any ill to the singer for whom is on-call. I think partly this is due to the extensive preparation to keep a seamless continuity to a performance. They are the pinch hitters.
So, here is a big shout out to all the covers who save the day. It is not "All about Eve" unless someone decides to make it so.