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O.C. MUSIC / BENJAMIN EPSTEIN : Lend Me a Tenor . . . or a Soprano . . . or a Conductor : It's an impresario's worst nightmare: Trying to find an alternate who can perform the material and who is available and affordable.

March 30, 1994|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

When the soprano soloist scheduled to appear in concerts last week with the Pacific Symphony became ill, a replacement had been found virtually by the time the orchestra was notified of the cancellation--with four days to spare.

Executive director Louis G. Spisto noted that Virginia Sublett, the replacement for Young-Ok Shin, "was on the roster of (Shin's) agent, she'd sung with the Pacific Symphony before, the music was in her repertory, she was available, she could make the first rehearsal, and she was within the fee we were offering."

"This," he added, "is not always the case."

Indeed not.

Earlier this month, for instance, Opera Pacific executive director David DiChiera endured what he considers the greatest casting challenge of his career during the company's run of Wagner's "Die Walkure."

"Casting Wagner's operas is a tremendous challenge to begin with," DiChiera said. "Finding a last-minute replacement is an impresario's worst nightmare.

"The day before our second performance, Mechthild Gessendorf, our Sieglinde, asked to be excused from the performance due to a worsening cold.

"Your first reaction is for the artist's well-being. Your second reaction is, 'How can I find a replacement at this late date?' "

DiChiera needed to locate an artist who: knew the role, which entails nearly 2 1/2 hours of singing over a 71-piece orchestra; was not currently engaged by another company, at a time when nearly every opera company was in mid-season; and was able to fly in, learn the production's staging and perform 24 hours later.

"We called agents and opera companies trying to find a singer who could meet nearly impossible requirements," DiChiera said. "As you know, we found one. Wednesday night, Leslie Morgan arrived and rehearsed with the conductor. Thursday she worked with the production staff to learn the staging. At 7 that same night, she made her entrance--and saved the day."

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In the same production, Jane Eaglen stepped in for Ealynn Voss, who withdrew for personal reasons, as Brunnhilde. Though not an emergency given the amount of notice, neither of the singers first signed to the roles of Wotan and Hunding ultimately appeared, and in fact, only one of the originally signed principals performed all dates for which they were contracted.

Tough run.

Even musicians are human, however, and subject to human frailties. That can mean illness or, in some cases, whim. It can mean the death of loved ones, or the birth: Also this month, L.A. Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen relinquished conductorial duties to rush his pregnant wife to the hospital; she delivered minutes before the concert began.

The Pacific Symphony maintains an "understudy" in the form of an assistant conductor; the L.A. Philharmonic is presently searching for one. But who can afford to pay two sets of zhigh-caliber soloists on a regular basis? Only an elite handful of opera companies, e.g., the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

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Tough as Opera Pacific's "Die Walkure" was, things could be worse. A replacement might not be found. Or you might have to replace the 71-piece orchestra.

"Any day of the week I'd rather be faced with replacing a soprano than a whole orchestra," commented Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra executive director Erich Vollmer, and former chief of the Orange County Philharmonic Society.

OCPS education director JoAnn Fuerbringer ticked off a catalogue of just such disappointments, and then some, in recent seasons.

"The L.A. Philharmonic canceled during the riots," Fuerbringer said. The City of Birmingham Symphony "canceled because they didn't have enough money to tour. Same with Vancouver Symphony, which was going to open our season. (Pianist) Andre Watts called in sick. (Pianist) Ivo Pogorelich, who was scheduled right after the Gulf War began, decided it was dangerous to fly" and canceled.

In lieu of Vancouver, the OCPS contracted the Prague Chamber Orchestra, and Santiago Rodriguez pinch-hit for Pogorelich. For the remaining events, staff members tried to notify subscribers by phone, via radio announcements and even by word of mouth at the parking structure entrances.

"We offer tickets to comparable events, but (people are) never happy, especially if it's an orchestra or soloist they've been longing to see," Fuerbringer said. "If they want their money back, we give it to them."

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Vollmer admitted that defining "comparable events" can be tricky.

"You're hard-pressed to always come up with somebody of equal stature, especially when you're talking about Pogorelich or Watts, but certainly there's a sea of wonderful artists out there," he said. "You don't try to pretend Rodriguez has the same celebrity as Pogorelich, but I'm not sure if the musical product wasn't as wonderful."

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While soprano Sublett had been able to arrange an earlier flight home to Southern California from an engagement in Arkansas to accommodate the Pacific Symphony, she shared a story that underscored how complicated logistics can be.

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