The dreaded cast change

This past weekend, I flew to Los Angeles, both to visit family and to see the opening night of The Tales of Hoffmann at LA Opera. It promised to be a starry occasion: Vittorio Grigolo as Hoffmann, Diana Damrau as the four heroines, Kate Lindsey as Niklausse/Muse, and Nicholas Testé as the four villains. Two weeks before the performance, an email arrived from the opera.

“German soprano Diana Damrau, who was previously announced to make her LA Opera debut as all four of the opera’s heroines (Olympia, Giulietta, Antonia and Stella), will now make her debut singing the last two roles, as aspiring singer Antonia and as prima donna Stella. In recent months, Ms. Damrau has suffered from bronchitis, forcing her to cancel several appearances. Since she has still not completely recovered, she has decided that the rare and formidable task of performing all four Hoffmann roles would be too demanding.”

Diana Damrau (Antonia). Copyright: LA Opera

Then, the night of the performance, Plácido Domingo stepped in front of the curtain (in his capacity as conductor and General Manager, not as a singer). Nicholas Testé was ill; he would walk his part onstage while a replacement sang from the pit.

For me, none of this was a great tragedy. All of the replacement singers were excellent and I enjoyed the opera. Besides, I had other reasons to visit Los Angeles. But other San Francisco friends who were making the trip for Damrau scrambled to cancel flights and hotel reservations — though she would still be singing, for some, it didn’t seem worth an costly journey given the changes.

Anyone who attends opera is familiar with this frustration. You buy an expensive ticket or make intricate travel plans. Then because of illness or over-scheduling or artistic differences with the director, Big Name Singer bows out. Sometimes you hear in plenty of time (in the recent case of Jonas Kaufmann withdrawing from the Met’s Tosca, many months in advance and comically close to the initial season announcement), and sometimes it’s a surprise when you’ve already arrived at the theater.

I get why it happens. Singers get sick, have families, and experience vocal changes (especially if they’ve been contracting five years in the future, as many stars do). I also get why it annoys audiences. Opera fandom can be a huge investment of time, money, and emotion. We get attached to favorite singers and pay big ticket prices to see them. When they don’t show, we feel cheated.

One of two things usually happens when a star must cancel. S/he might be replaced by another star (if there’s plenty of lead time, or the other star happens to be in town). Unless I love the replacement as well, this is a disappointing scenario. I get a known entity, but not the one I was excited about. The riskier — but potentially more rewarding — case is when Cover I’ve Never Heard Of gets a chance in the spotlight instead. S/he may be disappointing and mediocre. (That’s happened to me plenty of times, even at major houses.) Or I might get to witness a “star is born” moment and find a new singer I’m willing to travel across continents to hear. Many big names in opera first became widely known when they stepped in for ailing colleagues and did an amazing job. Regina Resnik, Joyce El-Khoury, Susan Graham, Angela Meade, Michael Fabiano and Jay Hunter Morris are just a few of the famous singers who had career breakthrough moments as covers suddenly called on to perform.

Have you ever cancelled opera plans due to a cast change? Alternatively, have you been lucky enough to witness an unexpected, amazing performance because of a cast change? Tell me about it!

1 thought on “The dreaded cast change”

  1. The best I can recall was a performance of Rosenkavalier at the ROH. Front of house statement was ” Felicity Lott (Marchellin) is unwell and unable to perform tonight” This was met with groans from capacity audience. “The role of the Marchellin will be sung tonight by Dame Kiri te Kanawa ” Stunned silence followed by tumultuous applause. They weren’t expecting that !!

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