Offstage, opera is complex Casting: It all started when Pavarotti got too sick to learn his part in 'La Forza del Destino' and didn't finish until the soprano changed three times in 'I Puritani.'

February 02, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- Forget the crazy opera plots. Simply putting on an opera is melodrama enough, given sensitive vocal cords, illnesses, jet-age scheduling and difficult scores.

The Metropolitan Opera staged a performance of "I Puritani" (the Puritans) Jan. 22 with a backstage scenario not envisioned by Italian composer Vincenzo Bellini and with a rare public explanation by the man who schedules the company's singers.

The "Puritani" story began last fall: On Oct. 30, the Met announced that its winter production of Verdi's "La Forza del Destino" (The Force of Destiny) was being replaced by Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" (The Masked Ball). The reason given was that popular tenor Luciano Pavarotti had been unable to learn the role of Don Alvaro in "Forza" because respiratory problems the previous season had backed up his schedule.

The role of Riccardo in "Ballo" is a walk in the park for him, he has done it so often.

Usually in such a case, an opera company dumps the singer, not the opera. But Pavarotti is such a big box-office draw that the Met held him to the dates, and the offending opera was fired. The Met hadn't replaced an opera on its schedule since February 1979, when Verdi's "Don Carlo" subbed for a single performance of Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos" because soprano Leontyne Price was sick.

A pivotal role

The replacement of operas set up an odd string of events, which culminated in the "Puritani" puzzle of Jan. 22.

Packed with beautiful melodies, "Puritani" is more difficult to sing than many. It and other Bellini operas are rarely done today; their elaborate bel canto (beautiful melody) flourishes are beyond the range or interest of many contemporary singers.

Which brings us to soprano Youngok Shin, a Met roster singer born in Seoul. She was originally scheduled to sing one performance of Elvira in "Puritani" and to be backup for other shows in January. However, in the scheduling change, it was decided that Shin would sing eight performances of the role of Oscar in "Ballo," opening Jan. 30, and withdraw from her role of Elvira in "Puritani." The two productions were too close together to do both.

The one night she was supposed to sing Elvira, and listed as such in the original season schedule, was Jan. 22.

Sick leave

Three months passed.

Monday morning, Jan. 20, a representative of Ruth Ann Swenson, the new Elvira who replaced Shin, called the Met to warn Jonathan Friend, its artistic administrator, that she might not be able to sing in "Puritani" in two days because of a throat infection.

Her fill-in, Martile Rowland, was asked to replace Swenson at Monday's rehearsal. Later that day, Swenson sent word that her doctors forbade her to sing in two days. Rowland was told officially she was singing Wednesday.

Not unusual in opera. However, later Tuesday evening, Rowland called the company to say she herself had the flu and could not sing the next evening.

So both principal soprano and "cover" soprano were out sick. This was unusual. Sometimes the company has two covers, but not this time.

Friend found himself in a bind. Without a replacement he might have to change operas -- this time to "La Boheme," a simpler opera to sing and find replacements for.

He was running out of Elviras.

Friend called -- guess who? -- Shin, who had bowed out in October. He asked if she could sing Elvira in less than 24 hours. Preparing for "Ballo," Shin said she'd think it over and answer the next day, the day of the production.

Wednesday morning Friend called Rowland and Swenson, to see if there were any changes in their conditions. The answer was no. (He would later say both ill singers were very sorry they could not perform, especially Rowland, who, like any cover performer, was just waiting for a chance to sing.)

Shin, however, said yes, she could perform in "Puritani" that night. She had done at least a concert performance of the role last year.

When operagoers arrived Wednesday night, they found the traditional slip saying, "In this evening's performance of 'I Puritani,' the role of Elvira will be sung by Youngok Shin, replacing Ruth Ann Swenson, who is ill."

The loss of both principal and cover singers was an unusual event, but not totally unheard of, a Met spokesman said. Yet Friend felt it his duty to come onstage before the production to tell the whole complicated story (without mentioning Pavarotti by name) to a nearly full house in Lincoln Center.

He did that, he said later, because many in the audience originally picked the only night when Shin was supposed to sing the role. So why was she the replacement? people might wonder. Friend himself wondered what they would think if she slipped badly.

"In fairness to Ms. Shin," Friend said, "I had to explain, if she had problems with the role, the circumstances of her coming in at the last minute to save the opera. She hadn't rehearsed with the cast, she hadn't been studying the role, she didn't have to do this."

Sighs and buzzing met the twists and turns of his explanation that night.

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