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Opera & Musical Theater

Answering the Call

Past and present Houston Grand Opera Studio artists tell Eric J. Skelly what it’s like to be called in on short notice to perform for an ailing colleague.

Few among us have not at some time in our lives experienced anxiety dreams—nightmares, really. You show up for an exam having never been to a class or cracked a book. You have a presentation before the board in less than half an hour and you haven’t even begun preparing your report.

Or maybe you’ve experienced that ultimate anxious nightmare, wherein you’re thrust onstage on opening night, and you have no idea what opera or drama you’re in, no clue as to your first note or line…in short, you’re completely unprepared and you’re frozen to the stage floor with stark, mind-numbing terror.

So imagine embarking on a career in which you face the terror of getting “the call” saying, “You’re on, kid!” at the eleventh hour, maybe not every day, but often enough that you know you have to expect it. For the young men and women launching their opera careers in the Houston Grand Opera Studio, being thrust onstage with short notice happens regularly. But unprepared? Not a chance!

Companies like the Metropolitan Opera hire covers (known as understudies in the theater world) as an insurance policy against a principal artist suddenly becoming unable to perform. Many companies, however, HGO included, usually don’t hire covers. If the prospects for a particular artist’s appearance begin to look grim, the company’s artistic administrator will keep abreast of the whereabouts of other singers capable of jumping into that role, so that they can be contacted in an emergency. At the same time, as a bit of extra insurance, companies like HGO that are large enough to have a program like the Studio require their young artists to “study” principal roles throughout the season.

So, what’s a study role?

Soprano Rebekah Camm, who studied the role of Beatrice for HGO’s world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Last Acts in February—March, explains that there is no real difference in the artistic requirements between “studying” and “covering.” Studying a role requires attending all rehearsals along with extensive coachings and hearings, when the artist sings the role for HGO artistic staff as if in performance. If a Studio artist studying a role steps in for the scheduled artist—whether for a rehearsal or a performance—he or she becomes a cover and the contract is changed accordingly.

While cover singers are contractually obligated to go on for the artist they are covering whenever needed, there is no such requirement for study singers, points out tenor Beau Gibson, who sang the title role of Faust last season when the scheduled artist was ill. In fact, sometimes Studio singers are asked to study certain roles simply to see whether the parts are well suited to their voices.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” adds Gibson, who studied the role of Tamino in the recent Magic Flute. “I sang Tamino for most of the Sitzprobe”—a musical rehearsal in which the cast and orchestra run straight through the score for the first time—”and in the first two orchestra dress rehearsals. Actually, in the second dress rehearsal I sang three roles, because I was already singing two roles, and since I was covering Tamino I had to sing all three during the rehearsal. It was kind of interesting that day!”

“He had to put a blindfold on himself,” remembers baritone Liam Bonner.

“Yeah, I had some dialogue with myself,” says Gibson.

Bonner tells about his own experience when he studied the title role of Don Giovanni, being sung by Mariusz Kwiecien in his HGO debut: “Mariusz actually started the Sitzprobe, but then he was in so much in pain that he just couldn’t sing. So I took over the rest of the Sitzprobe. But in any circumstance, any situation I’ve witnessed since I’ve been here, there hasn’t been a Studio artist that’s been a cover who hasn’t been as well prepared as the artist they’re covering.”

“And that’s the good thing about it for us,” adds Gibson. “Even if we don’t ever go on, we are building up a docket of roles for which we can be hired immediately, or in the next five or ten years of our career. Being prepared here, with free coachings and free lessons, it’s much better than trying to build that after we’re out.”

Bonner agrees. “On the resume you have a whole list of ‘roles studied.’ “

Once the Studio artist has spent the time, worked on the diction, coached the role, worked the score into his/her voice, how long does all that stay memorized?

James J. Kee, who studied the role of Charlie in Last Acts, says, “I think it depends on the piece. I know Last Acts will probably never leave my head. With new music in general, things that are difficult to learn, or sometimes have tricky lines—you have to kind of pound them into your brain. Four years ago I did Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams. Tomorrow, if someone needed a Terrorist sung, I could run in and sing that Terrorist,” he claims, to a round of laughter.

When “the call” does come, the artist is suddenly in the center of a maelstrom. Studio alumna Heidi Stober, who had returned to HGO as Blonde in The Abduction from the Seraglio at the time of our discussion, found that out first-hand while she was still in the Studio. Jennifer Welch-Babidge couldn’t go on as Norina in Don Pasquale, and Stober had studied the role.

“There was no forewarning,” said Stober of the evening she was called—a mere twenty minutes before curtain—to sing Norina. She has told her fellow Studio members she doesn’t remember anything that happened that night, but they remember it for her, because the word spread quickly and they all came rushing in to support her.

Bonner remembers, “It was a whirlwind! You had the costume people picking at your costume resizing it, you had wig and makeup people going at you, and then Thomas [Lausmann] and Eric [Melear] going over the music to refresh your memory. They held the curtain for half an hour, but it was worth it.”

“In those circumstances the staff here is awesome,” Stober says. “Usually those performances are the best because everyone onstage is alive and aware of what’s going on. Everything becomes heightened.”

“Didn’t your colleague say, ‘When in doubt, make out with me’?” Rebekah Camm asks, slyly.

“Yeah…Norman,” Stober laughs. Her fellow Studio member Norman Reinhardt was singing the role of Ernesto, Norina’s love interest.

Studio alumnus Chad Shelton was still in the Studio in January 2000 when he got the call to sing the leading role of Nemorino in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love in place of Ramón Vargas. It would be neither the first nor last time he would step into a performance at the last minute, but it would prove to be the most momentous time he would do so. “I was going to sing the second-cast performances; that was in my contract,” recalls Shelton. “I was going to sing it with Nicole Heaston, Oren Gradus and Chen-Ye Yuan. Because Ramón was coming in so late, I got to rehearse with Earle Patriarco, Dale Travis and Ana María [Martínez]. That’s when we first met. At first, it was a very businesslike relationship, and I remember seeing her and thinking, ‘Terribly cute…but I’m dating someone else.'”

Due to a family emergency, Vargas had to abruptly leave the rehearsal process, and Shelton went on for him. As opening night loomed, David Gockley, then the general director of Houston Grand Opera, called Shelton into his office, remembers Shelton. “He told me, ‘You’re going on,’ and I thought, ‘Are you out of your mind? What are you talking about? I’m in the Studio, and I’m going on with Earle Patriarco and Ana María Martíinez?’ And he just said, ‘Do it! We have that much confidence in you…go!'” And “go” he did, straight on to an opening night triumph.

“Then I came back to do Florencia en el Amazonas,” he continued. “I show up and Ana María’s there. We started hanging out a lot more, and I remember thinking ‘I’m in trouble.’ Dick Evans and Gloria Portela were Danny Belcher’s underwriters while he was in the Studio. Danny and I are good friends, and Dick and Gloria became good friends as well. They came to the first performance of Florencia, and I think Ana María and I kissed once during the course of that performance. Then they came to the last performance, and afterward Dick came backstage and said, ‘How many kisses did you have? Between these six performances what the hell happened?!'”

What happened was that Chad Shelton and his co-star Ana María Martínez had fallen in love. Gloria Portela was the matron of honor at their wedding and is now godmother to their young son, Lucas.

Most experiences standing in for a scheduled singer are not as life-changing as Shelton’s or as dramatic as Stober’s. In the end, can a singer survive without the steely nerves to face “the call” when it inevitably comes? When all is said and done, can a young artist have a career in opera without being able to jump into a principal role with little notice or no notice at all?

Rebekah Camm says it best: “Yes—but it’ll be short!”