Recently I chatted with the apprentice artists at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City where I am in rehearsals for Mozart's Così fan tutte. These young singers are students at UMKC and KU assigned to cover roles in the opera. The topic of discussion was how to understudy or, to use the term in the opera world, "cover".
As a cover, one is well-compensated or not compensated at all for learning the music and staging so as to be able to go on in case of cancellation by a principal singer. Some theaters, like the Met, have at least one or more covers for each solo role. They are well rehearsed and ready to go on at a moment's notice. On regular evenings they need to be no more than twenty minutes away, reachable by phone. At the Met, when there is a radio or video broadcast, the cover must be in the building They are allowed to let their guard down after the last entrance of their character. These singers are paid for each night they are on call and paid a fee if they go on. Sometimes a cover will be given one performance, many even making their Met debut this way.
My own Met debut in 1989 was as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro for which I was contracted to cover Anne Sofie von Otter for four performances (her debut) and then sing four of my own, although, sadly I became ill for two of the four. I did not rehearse in costume or on the set but it was a role I had sung quite often so I was able to survive. It was not, however, what one would call an auspicious debut.
Another year, at the end of my own run of performances in Mozart's Idomeneo, I stayed to cover Anne Sofie as Idamante. I never knew her to cancel so thought I could relax. Stunned to get the call around 6 p.m. after running around all day and eating heavily salted Chinese food, I headed to the Met. I warmed up feeling totally ready. But by the end of Act I, which had the hardest music with long two arias, I was losing my voice. The food had totally dried me out. Dryness is the singer's nemesis. Horrified, I had to relay this news to Jonathan Friend, the Met's administrator on duty. In Manuela Hoelterhoff's book, Cinderella and Company, (Random House 1999), she shares the story of his address to the audience:
"Ladies and Gentlemen: as you will have noticed from the slips in your program Anne Sofie von Otter is ill and was unable to perform today, and we are very grateful to Susanne Mentzer for coming in to sing the role of Idamante. However, as some of you may have noticed, her voice began leaving her during the course of the first act, and it is with great regret that she has said she is unable to continue. We have prevailed upon Ms. von Otter to come in to continue the performance, which she has kindly agreed to do, although it will be immediately apparent that she is not at her best health -- which is why she had canceled in the first place. In order not to delay the evening's performance, and to give Ms. von Otter, who has just arrived through the stage door, time to get into costume, wig, and makeup, the first entrance of Idamante in this act, in which she does not sing, will be taken by Ms. Mentzer, but by the time we come to Idamante's second entrance, we hope that Ms. Von Otter will be completely in costume, wig and makeup. We are grateful to both ladies for agreeing to this somewhat unusual circumstance, which I mention in some detail so as not to further confuse those of you who may be unfamiliar with the plot. Thank you."
Of course, not twenty minutes later my voice was back but it was too late for that evening.
Yet another time I was again covering Anne Sofie as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier while I was there rehearsing a new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. I remember the Friday morning final dress rehearsal of Ariadne when I was told she was ill for that evening. I ended up singing both taxing Strauss operas in one day.
My debut at the Lyric Opera of Chicago came earlier than planned when covering Kathleen Kuhlmann in Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. I was already there rehearsing The Merry Widow which was to open a few weeks later. As a result I had only observed the Barbiere dress rehearsal. The call came at around 5 p.m. the day of the performance. I met with the conductor Bruno Bartoletti before the performance. In Rossini's music every singer sings tailor-made ornaments. Kathleen was a low mezzo who employed some low ornamentation that I was unable to do. With the maestro I ran through my higher versions. He was a bit upset that I did not do the same ones as KK. This did not bode well for my nerves but we soldiered on. The cast could not have been more encouraging and supportive. Figaro, J. Patrick Raftery, was a young star my own age but lightyears ahead of me. The Count, Francisco Araiza in his prime as a Rossini tenor, gave me a small stickpin in the shape of a horseshoe for good luck. Basilio was the legendary bass Cesare Siepi. The evening came off well, but I learned that as a cover I needed to replicate whatever the original singer did.
I also made my Royal Opera Covent Garden debut by stepping in as Rosina. I was not really covering but I happened to be in Cologne, Germany so they flew me in that Saturday morning for the matinee. I was given basic stage directions for about an hour. I remember the cast was the fabulous baritone Thomas Allen, Deon Van der Walt (a talented South African tenor who was later tragically murdered) and bass Samuel Ramey. They were lovely and helped me through. Afterward, with no one around from the administration I went back to my hotel unpaid. It was quite surreal, indeed. I called my parents to tell them I just made my debut. I doubt anyone even remembers it except me. (I was paid about a month later.)
One of the apprentices here in K.C. asked about "cover blues." I told them that deep down covers think they can do the roles better than those singing, which of course, is rarely the case. I think it comes from just wishing one could have a chance at the role. It is hard to sit and watch. It does not stem from disliking the other singer or wishing them ill.
Some insecure singers do not like their cover to be present at rehearsals. It is a little bit like All About Eve. For the most part, though, the principal singer will treat the cover as a colleague, even commiserating about tricky moments and how they are feeling. Quite often, if a principal is not feeling 100 percent but still goes on, they will request that the cover be in costume and makeup, just in case. It eases the stress for an ill singer being pressured to perform.
When I look back at these events I am amazed at my spine and stamina. Needless to say, it's a good thing I was young and clueless. In the early day of a singing career one just never knows what might happen. The best advice: Be Prepared. After all, the show must go on.