My apologies for responding so late - we had an epic celebration last night, such that I had to clean the room before I could let the cleaning lady in. I also have to say that I’ve never before noticed how loud my laptop’s keyboard is; fortunately, this is a day off.
First off, I have to clarify a mistake I made in my original post. Someone had said that Benjamin Butterfield had sung the role of Rudolpho a few times. It made sense to me, even though I would have said the core of his repertoire lay in Mozart and his contemporaries.
He had not sung the role before - last night was his first time. I feel sure that he must have performed some of the popular excerpts (Rudolpho-Marcello duet from Act IV, the quartet from the end of Act III, the Act I aria…) as party pieces at opera fundraisers, though I have no confirmation for that idle speculation. Certainly the ensemble bits were being sung for the first time in front of a full house at a dress rehearsal. It wasn’t sight-reading; he’d looked at it with the conductor that afternoon. He wouldn’t have sung it all full out in that afternoon session, though - this is one of those roles that you would only sing once in a day.
It was a fantastic performance. It was not note perfect. Some of it was wrong, a couple of the entries went astray. (None of that matters, really, I just wanted to clarify that it wasn’t the way Hollywood would have written it up.) What was right was glorious, and by God, it was exciting!!
For the director, this was a totally different experience. He made the decision not to mouth along, but rather he used his (substantial) acting technique to convey the subtext of what was being sung without trying to give the impression of singing. It set him apart from the rest of us but he made it work for the character. It was a real challenge for the singers to react to the quiet guy standing ten feet away instead of reacting to the singing which was coming our way from thirty feet away and down. His challenge was to match the intensity of everyone else’s performance without overloading the acting. He performed splendidly.
It was really fun to have a theatre director experience that from onstage. When Mimi (as but one example) is really singing full out, you can feel the vibrations in your own chest cavity. Singers are used to that - for people, even performers, who are not singers, that can be a bizarre experience. Plus he got to live through singing’s athleticism - the surreptitious clearing of the throat between some lines, the extra intense breath before the climactic phrase, the eye that’s always out for the conductor and the ear that’s always out for the orchestra, the gauging of how long to hold the high note.
There’s so much else that we do have in common with theatre performers of any stripe - for instance, the constant lookout for something unexpected that we have to deal with without sending the story off the rails. Musetta’s earring fell off in Act II and lodged briefly in her decolletage, and so I was giving her a meaningful look in the eye followed by a meaningful look at her cleavage so that she could do something about it, or at least I could track it so it didn’t get lost or stepped on. (She has to give those earrings to Marcello in Act IV to sell in order to buy medicine. In an ideal world, she would still be wearing both of them…)
That sort of thing is common to actors, dancers and singers. This blending of the different styles is something I’ve never encountered in nearly thirty years of singing.
It’s not an ideal situation for the audience. We are anxiously awaiting news of my friend Luc. It is highly probable that he will not sing at tomorrow night’s performance, though we all wish him well and a speedy recovery.
Larger companies do keep understudies for exactly this sort of situation. Smaller companies are simply up against the harsh side of the cost/benefit equation. It would be prohibitively expensive to cover the travel expenses, accommodation and fees of the six extra artists required. Finding a replacement for Luc on short notice, making the travel arrangements, doing the emergency rehearsals - those, thankfully, are problems for someone else who knows what they’re doing.
We were talking at the party (and singing, laughing and hollering a lot, too - it was a pretty tense day for everyone and the fact that it went better than anyone dared hope lent itself to a great sense of release and camaraderie.) about how it would be fun to find a way to use this effect to artistic advantage. I think it would be great to take Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author”, make an opera of it and stage it so that the singers are never onstage - only six actors responding as if the thoughts being sung are coming through them. It would be particularly interesting if the actors did not always respond to the same voice. A little project for when I get home…
I’ll keep you posted as to how the rest of the run goes.