Like Super Heroes, Subs Often Save The Musical Day

Kristine Opolais sang Mimi on short notice at the Metropolitan Opera with Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo.  (Photos by Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera)
Kristine Opolais sang Mimi in ‘La Boheme’ on short notice at the Metropolitan Opera with Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo.
(Photos by Marty Sohl, Metropolitan Opera)
By Adeline Sire

In the wee hours of Saturday, April 5, soprano Kristine Opolais went to bed after a late-night supper following her first Metropolitan Opera performance as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. As many opera lovers now know, she was awakened by an early morning phone call from the Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb. He asked Opolais if she wouldn’t mind singing the role of Mimi that afternoon in a matinée of La Bohème to cover for Anna Hartig, who was ill.

Opolais being made up for the Met performance of 'Boheme.' (Sohl)
Opolais being made up for the Met performance of ‘Boheme.’ (Sohl)

With only about five hours to spare before the performance, that was a big request; the sleepy soloist  had sung the role before, but not at the Met. And never mind the nearly 4,000 audience members at the Met: this was the “Met in HD” matinée, the performance broadcast live in movie theaters in 60 countries to more than 200,000 viewers. When she went onstage that afternoon as Mimi, she became the first singer in the Met’s history to make two major role debuts (including two death scenes) in a 24-hour period.

Substitutions occur regularly in the world of classical music, often with mad chains of events backstage turning into smooth renditions onstage. While musicians are at the mercy of any serious virus or sprain, singers are the most vulnerable: they may be forced to cancel their appearances for as little as a common cold. So vocalist cast-change stories abound.

Opolais as Butterfly the night before singing Mimi. (Sohl)
Opolais as Butterfly, whom she portrayed the night before Mimi. (Sohl)

In fact, Gelb called Danielle de Niese one spring morning last year to ask her to step in that night for Natalie Dessay, who was ill. De Niese rushed over to the Met to ready herself to sing Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. But she’d had a chance to sing the role several times before in that production, just not at the Met.

High-stakes, high-pressure substitutions of soloists have irresistible appeal for audiences, which generally respond warmly to sensational acts of musical heroism. “People love that kind of thing, they love those stories,” said Martin Pearlman, Boston Baroque’s conductor. The period-instrument orchestra has seen its share of last-minute cast changes in its 40-year history, particularly in its annual presentations of the “Messiah.” One of the most memorable was a mid-concert emergency when Pearlman had to ask a soprano in the chorus – during an intermission – to take over for the soloist, who had been gradually losing her voice since the beginning of the performance.

Soprano Sara Heaton came to the rescue in Boston. (Arielle Doneson)
Soprano Sara Heaton came to the rescue in Boston. (Arielle Doneson)

In late December 2012, also with Boston Baroque, soprano Sara Heaton was called in to replace an ailing Courtney Huffman in the title role in Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s opera buffa La Serva Padrona (“The Servant Turned Mistress”). Heaton, who is in her early thirties, saw it as an offer she couldn’t refuse. “It’s a test, it’s a challenge,” she said, “and you want to rise to that challenge.” The performance was semi-staged, so Heaton had to memorize the score, but just in case, they came up with a clever trick to allow her to carry the music on stage.

La Serva Padrona tells the story of a maid scheming to make the old bachelor master of the house marry her. So Heaton – following a suggestion by her stage partner, baritone David Kravitz – attached the cover from a bridal magazine to the back of her score. The score-turned-prop made it look as if her character was selecting wedding dresses – an artful ruse that made the best out of a tricky situation. And the concert went without a hitch.

For young performers – especially conductors – accepting last-minute engagements have helped launch major careers. Arturo Toscanini was a 19-year-old cellist in a touring opera orchestra when he was asked to step in for the conductor, who’d quit abruptly in Rio de Janeiro. Thanks to his photographic memory, Toscanini led Aida with no score and quickly became internationally admired. On another triumphant occasion, the 27-year-old Seiji Ozawa was appointed musical director and resident conductor of the Ravinia Festival in 1963, after he stepped in to replace French conductor Georges Prêtre.

Bernstein in the 1940s. (Library of Congress)
Bernstein conducting in the 1940s. (Library of Congress)

An even bolder example is the 1943 launch of Leonard Bernstein, who substituted for a flu-stricken Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic at the last minute, with no time for rehearsal and only a brief session to go over the program’s scores with the indisposed maestro. The Carnegie Hall concert was broadcast live on CBS radio and deemed by one critic as “a stunning success.” A New York Times critic noted on the newspaper’s front page the next day that Bernstein, then 25, “went through the ordeal with no signs of strain or nervousness.”

That cool-as-cucumber attitude is key, as no substitute will score points just for taking on an insane challenge. Nerves of steel are required.

I saw such impressive nerves in action last month in Boston at a performance by a brilliant trio on tour. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin played with violinist Anthony Marwood and clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein, who had stepped in to sub for the Swedish musician Martin Fröst, the victim of an injured shoulder. The trio kept the same program, since Fiterstein knew all the works by Debussy, Poulenc, Bartók, and Stravinsky.

The clarinetist first flew overnight to San Francisco to meet Hamelin and Marwood in the hotel lobby before heading directly to the SFJazz Center. “It’s not easy to find your place in a dynamic that’s already been created,” Fiterstein said. “But we played for two hours through everything. It was very natural and not too difficult actually to play together.” That evening, they delivered a performance there that was hailed critically. When the musicians performed in New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in Boston at the end of that week, there was palpable excitement from an audience eager to hear the daredevil clarinetist who had saved the day.

Clarinetist Alexander Fiterstein helped out Marc-André Hamelin and Anthony Marwood.
Fiterstein teamed with pianist Hamelin and violinist Marwood.

The musicians noticed it, too, saying they could feel the audience’s energy and support, and the Celebrity Series performance went beautifully. Debussy’s Première Rhapsodie for Clarinet and Piano first unveiled the plush, velvet timbre of Fiterstein’s clarinet, with the work’s supple melodies dancing over Hamelin’s undulating and crystalline piano. There was great chemistry in Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, which brought the trio together, and rhythmic synergy in Bartok’s Contrasts.

But there was a high-point when the audience held its collective breath. That was in the second movement of Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. “Romanza,” as the movement is called, slowly unrolls a haunting melody that displayed the incredibly soulful and expressive tone of Fiterstein’s clarinet. Everyone understood then how intuitively the performer had found his way into the heart of this performance.

“From my experience, it’s not really necessary to have a ton of rehearsals in order to be successful,” said Fiterstein. “If people are really good, it’s like having a conversation.”

Apparently, a Zen-like calm is the default setting for Fiterstein. It impressed Hamelin. “He is a great artist and a consummate professional,” Hamelin said, “and I would love to play with him again.”

Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has subbed many times.
Pianist Marc-André Hamelin has subbed on occasion.

Hamelin knows it can be a real challenge for soloists to blend into a musical canvas already drawn on by others. He, too, has had his own “911-Soloist” call. It was a cold January day in 1992. Hamelin, then 30, was staying with family in the suburbs of Montreal.

“The phone rang at 4:45 p.m. exactly. How could I forget?” said Hamelin. An orchestra administrator was on the line to ask whether he could step in for pianist Peter Serkin with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. That evening. At 8 p.m.

Serkin was due to play Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto, but he had the flu and could not repeat the previous night’s concert. For a pianist, this Beethoven concerto is standard repertoire, but it had been two years since Hamelin had performed it. So with no score at hand, and a long ride ahead of him, he “practiced mentally” in the cab taking him to the concert hall on slow, icy roads. Once there, a score was waiting for him and he had about an hour to peruse it, but in concert, he played the concerto from memory.

Nervous? Not so much. “Having the support of such an orchestra (conducted by David Zinman) was very comforting,” he said. The performance was a great success and the audience gave Hamelin enthusiastic applause. So much so that Hamelin wished there had been some record of his accomplishment early on in his career. “Unfortunately, the concert had already been reviewed the night before, so no critics were there to witness the moment,” he said, sounding a bit like an unsung hero.

If you think it is madness to accept such a career-making-or-breaking challenge at the last minute, consider an alternative: a soloist playing while injured. Take David Krakauer, distinguished clarinetist and klezmer expert extraordinaire. “It would take quite a lot for me to ever, ever cancel a concert,” said Krakauer, who points out he has never missed a gig for health reasons and has soldiered on with high fever from flu or bronchitis many times.

Clarinetist David Krakauer once performed with a broken arm.
Clarinetist David Krakauer once performed with a broken arm.

Last December, Krakauer added a new challenge: He played with a broken arm. On the eve of a Los Angeles concert with the UCLA Philharmonia and chorus, he slipped and fell in the street. After a trip to the hospital, where he was told he had broken his humerus bone, Krakauer went back to his hotel room and tried to play. “My fingers moved and everything seemed fine,” he said. “As it was, the only thing that was slightly impaired was my proclivity to move around a lot.”

Krakauer had been in L.A. to perform and record Mohammed Fairouz’s clarinet concerto, Tahrir, and his third symphony, Poems and Prayers, which includes a clarinet solo. Considering all the people and time invested in the project, and that the pieces he had to play were short, he decided to perform as planned, without his sling. “I can’t say that I was extremely comfortable, but it happened,” he said. Critics lauded the concert, apparently unaware of Krakauer’s predicament.

After some prompting, Krakauer did remember the only time he couldn’t fulfill a commitment. “One concert (in Paris) I couldn’t make, because of the volcanic cloud in Iceland,” he said, remembering the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, whose large ash cloud disrupted air traffic for weeks. There was simply no maneuvering around that situation, and the concert was canceled.

Forget flu and other ailments. If you’re going to cancel your appearance, “the volcano made me do it” might be the best excuse on the planet.

Adeline Sire is an arts journalist and radio producer specializing in music and culture, in the Boston area. She is a contributor to the quarterly magazine Early Music America and is a former producer for the BBC-PRI-WGBH international news program The World. Twitter: @AdelineSire