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Once in a while before an opera starts, someone will appear on stage and make a cast change announcement to the audience. “For tonight’s performance, Luciano Pavarotti will be singing Rigoletto instead of Placido Domingo; Mr. Domingo was called back to Spain,” or something along those lines.
Unless I was covering that opera or familiar with either name, I never paid close attention. Sounds good. Whatever. Moving on.
But Tuesday I got my first taste of the drama behind the drama: What happens when someone calls in sick less than a week before opening night.
At 9:30 a.m. Monday, one of the main singers for “Faust,” Joshua Hopkins, told general director Ian Campbell he was getting sick. They immediately decided Hopkins should withdraw from the first performance of “Faust,” and maybe more, depending on his health.
Three hours later, Campbell booked another baritone to sing the Valentin role, Brian Mulligan. By the time I was sitting in Campbell’s office on Tuesday at 2:45 p.m., Mulligan had arrived and was at his costume fitting.
How did they make this happen?
It took a lot of frantic phone calls.
Once Campbell made the decision that Hopkins should sit out, he and his assistant made a list of about 10 candidates, bolstered by suggestions from some of the other singers of people they’d worked with before. They made a list of requirements, crossing off any of the candidates who didn’t match: Male, baritone, established, available within 24 hours, versed in the role of Valentin (not just a song or two) and comfortable with swordplay. Oh, and he had to be American or currently in the United States, to avoid a visa processing delay.
That left a pool of exactly two people.
In the first conversation with Mulligan’s agent, Campbell learned that Mulligan sang the same role with the San Francisco Opera and will sing it at the Metropolitan Opera next winter.
Next came the question of voice quality. Campbell decided Mulligan’s makes the cut.
And the final test: How were his sword-wielding skills? (Spoiler: That’s a big part of his role.) To find out, he checked in with the San Francisco Opera’s fight director. “The report was, ‘Very well indeed,’” Campbell related.
They finalized the schedule, compensation, housing and logistics, like who’ll pick Mulligan up from the airport. Then, Tuesday morning, Mulligan drove from Long Island to New York, where he caught a flight to San Diego. Meanwhile, various artistic and musical leaders at the opera coordinated their schedules so they’ll get more time with Mulligan. That way, he’ll have several rehearsals and a few chances to work with the fight director.
I asked Campbell if his heart jumped into his throat when he realized he had a cast change less than a week before opening night.
“We had no choice,” he answered.
He’s no stranger to scrambling; it’s a part of the business, he said. Anja Harteros, a respected German soprano, withdrew from both of the last two operas she was supposed to sing in San Diego for medical reasons. Both times Campbell had more than three weeks to replace her.
In comparison, this cast change was “a breeze,” because Valentin is not as specialized a role as what Harteros was signed up to sing. Those were leading soprano parts, which only very few women around the world can pull off.
In the few days I’ve spent with the San Diego Opera for this series, and during previous interviews with its resident and visiting artists, everyone has kept drilling one point home: You never know.
You never know when a chorus member will get hurt or a virus will ensnare someone’s vocal chords. You never know when a singer will back out or someone’s back will cave in.
You also can’t be certain that the newcomer will satisfy you — or the audience.
And that’s where San Diego Opera is now, just a few days before opening night, hoping the last-minute replacement will catch up in time.
Next up: Where he points, darkness turns to light.
Previously in “Countdown to Curtain:” Opera as a monumental cottage industry. Company started thinking all the way back in 2006 about doing “Faust” this season. Nine hours after the last performance of the previous opera, the sets crew tears down 18th-century opulence to begin setting up the somber scenery for “Faust.” And with little time to spare, the costume director for an opera puts puzzles together and finds ways to make quick changes possible.
Roxana Popescu is a San Diego arts writer. You can reach her directly at email@example.com.