Casting Crisis: A Drama in 3 Acts
Casting changes pose a problem even at the Bayerische Staatsoper, yet so far we've never had to cancel a performance because of it. How is this possible? Who makes it possible? In short: what happens when a substitute singer stands on stage?
Act 1: The Cancellation
Dr. Claudia Küster ensures that rehearsals and preparations for the performance all run smoothly.
9.30 am. The day of the performance: Artistic Management Office. The leading singer cancels the evening performance.
Do you get warned beforehand?
Claudia Küster, Rehearsal Office: Yes, an artist usually notices the night before when there's something not right with their voice and lets us know.
What are the reasons for cancelling?
CK: Usually, the reason is illness: a heavy viral infection, laryngitis. Anything that affects the throat or nose. Or a personal event like the death of a close family member. Singers depend on their voice. That's their main asset. A doctor might advise against singing if the voice is endangered or if there's a threat of long-lasting damage.
How widespread is your network?
CK: If we have two or three days notice, our lines of enquiry reach as far as America. If we find out about a cancellation on the day of the performance, then we're more interested in the European regions close-by where there are good train and flight connections.
Act 2: The Search
9.31 am: The first moment of shock has passed. The Artistic Management Office approaches a potential substitute. There's uncertainty in the air. Is the possible stand-in truly prepared to take over the role in the evening and come to Munich straight away?
How do the singers find out about the details of the Bayerische Staatsoper production?
CK: We immediately send over a musical tally sheet with all the changes in the score and recitative part as well as the spoken dialogue, as in operas like The Magic Flute and Fidelio. If we have time, we also send a DVD of the production via express post. If they've already sung the role here before, we hope they can remember the part.
10.30 am: A singer accepts. Everyone can breathe again.
Who's available for such spontaneous performances?
CK: Usually it's experienced singers or outstanding young performers, who unexpectedly find a fantastic platform. That's what happened to the Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught. Fresh out of the Bayerische Staatsoper Opernstudio, she replaced the ill Vesselina Kasarova as Romeo at the last minute in the premiere of I Capuleti e i Montecchi to huge success; it was her breakthrough and she's now in-demand worldwide. Now and again, someone who happens to be working for the Bayerische Staatsoper anyway and has it in their repertoire takes over a role – as long as there's enough time afterwards for them to prepare for their 'actual' performance. (Image: Tara Erraught is applauded in her stand-in performance as Romeo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi)
When does the audience find out about the casting change?
CK: First we send an internal email about the substitution. Our online editors compose a newsletter with the news and a biography of the guest singer and make it public straight away – either through the so-called Casting Change Newsletter or, in the case of a leading role, via email to all the audience members. Otherwise, we put a notice of the change in cast on the website.
10.45 am: Costume Department. Margareta Bauer, one of the two costume designers, is on duty and reads the message.
Do you switch to crisis mode?
MB: The pressure on the costume department at this moment is enormous. The tailors on duty get the original costume and urgently need the new measurements. Sometimes the artistic management office have the measurements from the agency. Otherwise I phone the opera house where the singer performed last time, since the colleagues will be up-to-date. We always check the measurements, since a few kilos here or there make a lot of difference to the fit. We compare the new measurements with the current costume and discuss whether we can adapt it or not. You have to bear in mind that every singer has several costumes. In one production we even had ten per role!
So you alter the original costume?
MB: In general, from the premiere onwards you will always see the same costumes on stage. For example, Fidelio has had a lot of different singers but the costumes remained the same. They're constantly modified.
Making something tighter or shorter is always possible. How do you make it bigger or longer?
MB: The tailors usually make the costume so that it can be easily adapted. If there isn't enough seam allowance, then we use whatever we have left of the same material. We keep this every time we make a new costume. Or we magic new, matching material out of our storage.
The outfit doesn't stop with the costume.
MB: Right. We need headdresses and jewellery, hats and rings, while being aware of fur or nickel allergies. Harnesses, like in Fidelio, must fit properly and I could write a whole chapter on shoes. If we need small gold shoes then we might paint another pair. If theatre blood is going to flow, then the blood pouch mustn't slip. And since the stand-in is letting themselves in for a big adventure, she or he usually wants to wear particular underwear, so that they feel comfortable.
11.15 am: They have the original costume and the measurements, now the creative work begins with scissors and sewing machine.
What happens if the original costume can't be adapted?
MB: Then we consider when the piece is set. Is it a historical or modern production? What was the underlying idea behind the costumes? We have the theatre's costume range in our minds and search the inventory for something suitable. Now and again we use a costume from the choir for a soloist.
If you don't find anything?
MB: If we have enough time, then we might make a new costume. We ordered a red suit for Das Rheingold on the Friday for Saturday. Or a buyer goes out to purchase material or a complete outfit.
1 pm: Claudia Küster has already organised afternoon rehearsals with the conductor and stage direction.
Are there rooms available?
CK: Sometimes I have to restructure the entire timetable for the day so that the rehearsals can take place in the best room, wherever most closely resembles the stage plan.
Act 3: The Stand-In arrives
3 pm: The singer's arrival at Max-Joseph-Platz
3.10 pm: After the greeting, the substitute singer must go to the costume department immediately. She or he tries on the altered costume, tests out shoes and accessories.
3.30 pm: Rehearsals: director, conductor, répétiteur and souffleur are ready to give their full support and energy. Two hours for a whole opera. The stage director shows the singer the most important moments of every scene. She or he must understand the director's original ideas and the essence of the production, as well as internalise the character and the emotions involved. Only then can the story be told properly with the scenic and musical performance matching the original performance. Interactions with colleagues on stage - all other roles are marked by the stage direction during the rehearsals – are also run through.
5.30 pm: The conductor sets aside half an hour for a rehearsal with the répétiteur. She or he discusses the essentials, clarifies changes in the score and goes through a couple of the more difficult passages.
6 pm, 60 minutes before the performance begins: the singer sees the real stage-set for the first time. She or he walks through some of the movements – after that, the technical team take over and prepare the set.
6.15 pm: The mask department calls. If a weapon is involved, then the armourer must show the singer how the gun is used.
A moment of peace?
CK: Well. Make up and with the wig and costume safely on, there's still time to watch specific scenes on DVD. Or there's an appointment with a photographer or film-maker, as with Lucia, Un ballo in maschera or Fidelio where images of the character are projected onto the stage.
6.45 pm: The singer has been in the theatre since their arrival in Munich. She/he has not had a moment's rest, but now it really starts. Only 15 minutes before the curtain rises.