Reflections on Stage Life Part 2: The Cover Goes On! Marie at the MET
After finishing with La Charmeuse at the MET in 2009, I was asked to return the next season to do three significant covers, also known as understudy parts. After some pressure from my manager, I agreed to cover Joyce DiDonato in The Barber of Seville, Diana Damrau in La Fille du Regiment, and Natalie Dessay in Hamlet.
I resisted covering because it was rumored to mean that you were seen as someone who would never again be considered for a main stage role. However, in years past, covers used to get a few performances toward the end of the run.
It was 2010, and the financial crisis was hurting a lot of companies. A few of my jobs had been canceled, and companies were cutting corners hard. So it made sense to take the covers to ride it out. I would be in one place for nearly three months, and I could take lessons with my teacher and coach some new upcoming repertoire. Something I rarely got a chance to do anymore with any consistency.
The Fille du Regiment production was the acclaimed Laurent Pelly one that Natalie Dessay had made so famous. I was eager to do it and excited to see and hear Diana Damrau up close while she put her stamp on the production.
I had covered Natalie before in 2006 at the Paris Opera for Lucia di Lammermoor after she took some time off for a rumored vocal injury.
Side note, Paris Opera didn't usually hire covers. That Lucia production was a particular case since Natalie had recently been canceling performances before her pause to sort things out. This was her first production back, and the company was covering its bases. However, when I introduced myself to her at the first rehearsal as her cover, I could tell that she had no idea I would be there. The look of hurt, surprise, and doubt on her face has haunted me ever since. But, more on that in a later post.
Cover jobs are relatively simple. You get to watch, take some notes, hear outstanding singing, and then you are on your way to sitting around or actually going on at the last minute. Toward the end of the rehearsal process, once the main cast has gone to the stage, you will have rehearsals to get a reader's digest version of the intention behind the staging from the assistant stage director and musical comments from the assistant conductor.
In this case, I was in good hands for the Fille du Regiment at the MET. Tomer Zvulun was the assistant director, and Steven White was the assistant conductor. We had a blast in our five days of working through the staging. The entire cover cast was a talented dreamy bunch.
A cover always prepares to go on, but often the moment never arises. You can glean from the title of this blog that I actually went on. Here's how it went down.
The following is an excerpt from my 2010 blog:
Hello, is it really morning….Can someone please tell me that last night wasn't a dream?? Okay, confirmed, not a dream. It was REAL, folks!
I went on as Marie in La fille du Regiment last night at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City!!! I can't even believe I just typed that sentence, and I can't believe that what I have had as a faint picture in my mind for many years actually happened.
I will try and write about what it was like, but as I begin to start, I realize that there are no words for the emotions that I had yesterday, and there will be no way for me to really describe how I felt and how I feel now. So stay with me; I shall ramble a spell.
We grew up in this business being taught in school that at any moment we could get the call and be asked to go on for an ailing singer. I remember being told this in graduate school and thinking that after one of my performances at Indiana University, the MET could have heard about it and might give me a call. I've always taken things very seriously, you see.
We were drilled into believing that we could never be prepared enough because we just may be called upon to save the day. We have been told numerous stories of careers being made by someone stepping in at the last minute. I know Renata Scotto rocketed to stardom after filling in for Maria Callas in La Sonnambula, and I remember a similar story about Franco Corelli…you get the point; it happens. People get sick, things come up, and they cancel.
I knew it was possible that I would go on. It has been in the back of my mind for some time that I very well could go on, and the thought of it sometimes made me crazy and sometimes wince. However, after doing the cover rehearsals last week, I felt confident and excited about the possibility; that is the job I signed up for, and that is what I was prepared to do.
So let me give you all the details because I know many of you are dying to see how this all works.
I was notified Monday that Diana Damrau was sick and would cancel rehearsals that afternoon for her upcoming run of The Barber of Seville. People in the MET office said that she may feel better for the performance but that they wanted me to be on call just in case.
So, I canceled my Hamlet coaching at 1:00. (I am also covering Natalie Dessay in her upcoming performances of Ophelia in Hamlet…..hmmm what if…….well, let me not get ahead of myself!) I went to see Greg Keller, the fabulous assistant stage director at the MET. He and I went through the role together. He spoke the other lines; oh yeah, let me mention that this particular production has tons of spoken French dialogue. I have been working on it for months.
We went through the staging quickly to make sure I remembered where I was supposed to be. Then I spent an hour alone going through some phrases I knew I wanted to double-check. I left the MET that day feeling pretty good, and I ran into an old friend on my way out.
Get this, the old friend I ran into was none other than Larry Brownlee. We went to school together at Indiana University not too long ago and were catching up on things.
The dialogue went a bit like this: Oh, that's great! So, good to see you…..Wow, has it been so long…what two years?.... How are things? Yep, married, and you are a newlywed too, right?...... Yes, I am covering Fille here and am on call because Diana is sick, but she probably will be fine for tomorrow…..insert more dialogue about how long we are both in NYC and about roles coming up, etc…..then the big ender……
"So, we should get together while we are here and do something fun…….Yeah! That would be great!" Then we swapped phone numbers and went on our way. Who knew that less than 24 hours later, that fun thing to do would be an opera at the MET!
Larry was called on Tuesday to fill in for the ailing Juan Diego Florez.
Let me insert a note here. Larry was not the cover for Juan Diego Florez. Larry was there singing in a new production. Another fabulous tenor I would sing with a few months later in Florence, Italy, was the actual cover, who had watched rehearsals and run through the staging in the cover cast stagings. He was marvelous with shining, vibrant high C's, all nine of them. But he was overlooked for this moment. Somehow, I managed to keep my big moment. I have often wondered who wasn't in town to keep me from it. Anyway, let's continue...
Tuesday afternoon, we both got the call that we were going on. I was so excited! I have imagined this moment many times. I usually do so when I hear other singers tell their stories about getting the call, and when I think about it, it would always bring utter terror into my body, and I would imagine the sky falling in.
But luckily, when I got the call, I heard my mouth say “Sure, I'd love to sing tonight. I'll be down at the theater as soon as I can!"
I calmly packed my bag, grabbed my score and an extra pair of underwear (amazing what we can remember during these moments), and headed to the theater. There was a large blizzard in NYC yesterday, and the roads were a mess. I hopped in a cab, and within half an hour of sliding down West End Ave, I arrived at the Met stage door.
I went to the 5th-floor studio, and when I walked in, Larry and I burst into laughter. We told everyone what had happened Monday afternoon and how casually we suggested we should get together again.
We rehearsed our scenes together, and Larry was excellent. He had never seen the production and was learning French dialogue on the fly!! So fearless is this man, and what a brilliant artist.
So, fast forward…..yes, I know, get to the good stuff.
I went to the MET cafeteria, ate something, and then went to my dressing room. It was 6 pm, and the make-up staff came. I don’t even remember that whole ordeal and hardly remember getting my wig on. But what I do remember is looking in the mirror and seeing Marie! I know, weird, but when I was dressed, and all put together, my energy surge was enough to power all of Manhattan. Yep, just like that. I started jumping around. I went into the hall to show everybody my cute little wig and bouncy ponytail.
I WAS Marie!
People started coming by my room. Music staff, props people, microphone lady (it was a Sirius Broadcast), dressing people who had worked with me before, colleagues who needed to rehearse lifting me up (yep, my Lincoln Co. cheerleading days came in real handy last night.), it seemed like Grand Central for a spell.
General Director Peter Gelb stopped to wish me luck and Maestro Marco Armiliato, the conductor for the evening, stopped by to give me a pep talk. You think that we talked about music, but we didn’t.
He is a singer's conductor, for sure. I was not worried in the least that he would be with me. His kind eyes and exuberant face say everything about this man. He told me, “Leah, give the audience a good time. You have a good time, and they will have a good time.”
Simple. Good. I was not worried that we had not worked on any music together.
I went out onto the stage. Stage management held the audience so Larry and I could walk on the set. I checked my props. I moved things around so that they worked better for me. I ran around a little bit. I made peace with the vastness of the MET. It’s huge but very intimate. I was feeling good.
On my way from the stage, I saw Peter Gelb talking with Kiri Te Kanawa. Without a thought, I ran over to them and introduced myself to Dame Kiri. She is a legend. I was going to be sharing the stage with her, and I wanted to introduce myself. She was lovely and very encouraging. Then, I bounced back to my dressing room.
I stood a moment. I sang a verse of Blessed Assurance. I flipped through my score and sang a few passages from the opening of the opera.
I was calm. I don’t know what happened exactly, but the mean little gremlin that sometimes creeps his way onto my shoulder when pressure is high took the night off.
I went to my place off-stage to wait for my entrance. I had such fantastic support backstage. My friend and colleague Steven White, the assistant conductor of this production, was in the wings and told me he would be there. He was just an arm's length away. It is a marvelous feeling having positive energy close to you when you are about to throw yourself into the unknown.
The next thing I knew, I picked up a pile of laundry and walked out on stage, and started singing. Everything became like an out-of-body experience. There were times that I felt as if I were hovering above myself.
I was having fun.
I played with my colleagues and was FLOATING, BEAMING, REJOICING, and PRAISING…..I don’t know. It was all the hard work of my entire life coming out of my body. All the people who had helped me in some way were holding my hand. It was all the memories of people I miss now, there with me.
I know I sound like a commercial, and please let me have this moment of indulgence; It was unforgettable.
I can’t remember every detail, but my favorite moments were singing with Larry in the duet. We were both so happy to be there, and his energy was so positive and confident.
I loved singing with the chorus of soldiers and all the energy I was getting from them as I slapped their hands during Chacun Le Sait. I enjoyed the lesson scene in Act II, playing with the hilarious Meridith Arwady as my Aunt. Meridith and I were in the MET competition in 2004 together. I believe she went on to be a winner, and I was in the semi-finals. She was a sweetie and gave me a back massage during Tonio’s nine high C’s aria, which Larry rocked!
I absolutely loved singing Salut a la France, running across the stage, and banging on the piano. I messed up the ending to the aria because I just had a brain slip, but I kept going and ended with a heartful high note while being lifted into the air by five strong dancers.
I laughed out loud on stage when Kiri Te Kanawa screamed in my ear. She did it exceptionally long last night, and Larry and I were shocked just looking at her. It was like a silly dream, all of it.
I had random thoughts throughout the show, like, I am glad I shaved this morning, I wonder if these army pants give me a camel toe, thank God I remembered my toothbrush….those kinds of things that make you laugh at yourself.
Most of my thoughts were of telling myself to breathe. Then I would ask myself to exhale and then breathe again. I found this works. Simple, huh? Hard to do when the world is watching.
I was out of breath a lot but managed to stay grounded when it mattered most. That stage is eno