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Riding to the rescue of L.A. Opera's 'L'Elisir'

When a singer takes ill, often there's a mad scramble to fill his or her shoes. Just ask Plácido Domingo.

September 11, 2009|Karen Wada

It was, says Placido Domingo, "truly a dream cast." For this season's opener, Donizetti's "L'Elisir d'Amore" (The Elixir of Love), Los Angeles Opera had signed Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon and American baritone Nathan Gunn -- both marquee names -- as well as the young Georgian soprano Nino Machaidze. To top it off, the great Italian bass Ruggero Raimondi was going to mark his 45th year on the stage with his first appearance in L.A.

But then things began to go awry. Last spring, Villazon had to bow out because of vocal cord problems. And last week, Raimondi withdrew after rupturing an Achilles tendon during rehearsal.

"We will miss Rolando and Ruggero very much," said Domingo, L.A. Opera's general director, on the phone from Colombia. The company has found "wonderful singers" to assume their roles, he adds, "but it is still very sad -- and yet it is a part of life."

Indeed, cast cancellations -- and the search for replacements -- are fixtures of the opera business. Tales abound of calamities, great saves and, as a silver lining, singers who got career boosts by answering last-minute calls.

"Change is so normal it's like, 'If you water your grass, do you expect your grass to grow?' " said music director James Conlon, who will conduct "L'Elisir" when it opens Saturday. "You accept what happens and then you react -- lucidly."

Singers are prone to sudden setbacks because their profession demands perfection in every note. "The most delicate instrument in the world is the human voice," Conlon said. "You can go to bed, wake up and there is no voice." Stage accidents such as Raimondi's also are common. "Opera singers, like ballerinas or baseball players, are very active on the job."

Performers must take care not to risk damage to their voices, while weighing which would be worse: the potential of delivering a sub-par aria or of disappointing fans with a no-show.

"It is a difficult decision because you always want to do your best," Domingo said. "And you always want to think of the audience first."

Domingo, who possesses star power and the largest repertoire of any tenor (130 roles), may be the ultimate white knight, having bailed out many companies, including his own.

One evening in 1989, he was set to conduct "Tosca" in L.A., but left the pit to sing when the tenor was indisposed. Six years earlier, the San Francisco Opera lost its Otello to laryngitis on opening night. Domingo, who was in New York, boarded a private plane and headed west. A gala dinner that was supposed to follow the show was served early and, as the audience ate, the tenor's whereabouts were reported with precision worthy of a space mission: "Mr. Domingo is over Chicago. Mr. Domingo is over Las Vegas. Mr. Domingo has landed." Domingo tried on costumes in the limo from the airport and was onstage when the curtain rose at 10:30 p.m.

The maestro, who also is general director of Washington National Opera, has made a few calls for help himself. What Domingo described as "my most desperate time" occurred in 1996, during his first season in Washington, when illness swept through the cast of "La Boheme." After several colleagues had canceled one Saturday, the tenor announced that he, too, was going home. Having exhausted his resources covering other roles, Domingo was in a jam. He began to contemplate taking the part himself -- even though he was starring in a companion production, Gomes' "Il Guarany," and had sung the night before and was to sing the next day.

At the last moment, a tenor from another show was spotted eating dinner in a nearby restaurant. "He saved us," Domingo said. "It was just like in a movie."

Some ailing singers do go on, but ask that an announcement about their health be made. Some try to soldier on but end up withdrawing mid-show -- ideally, replaced by a cover, opera's version of an understudy. On rare occasions, a performer will act out a role while a colleague sings from the side of the stage.

Conlon said that in Europe, where he worked for a quarter-century, covers are rarely used. Instead, the same-day scramble for replacements is a given. "There's a rule: 'If you are going to cancel, you cancel by 12 o'clock." That system works, Conlon explained, because the proximity and number of singers make it "relatively easy to find someone suitable who can arrive in time."

The U.S., however, has fewer singers and companies and the distances separating them are greater. So, covers often are hired -- although houses such as the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which has weathered a spate of cast changes in recent years, try to bring in big-name stars when they can.

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