Operatic history is filled with great stories of instant stardom for understudies. At the Met in 1950, a 20-year-old Roberta Peters went on as Zerlina in Don Giovanni. More recently, Angela M. Brown stepped in at the last moment for a triumphant Aida. For every such moment of triumph, however, there is a moment of profound disappointment, that moment when a singer, struggling with illness, has to weigh all the possible consequences of canceling, consequences such as leaving other performers in the lurch, loss of income, and the equal, if not greater, negatives of causing serious vocal harm or career damage by singing when he or she is ill.
I am not talking about when a singer needs to be replaced because he or she considers rehearsals optional, or because the audience boos the singer in the first act and decides to take a pass on the second. I’m not talking about diva or divo fits, though I’ve heard such things happen. I’m talking about getting sick, getting really, really, sick, and having to cancel rather than give a lousy performance and possibly hurt your voice in the process.
I was wondering this month about when I would have time to write this column. As it turns out, I needn’t have worried because I have suddenly found myself with an unplanned night off.
It all began a few days ago.
Feeling something coming on, I did what singers do. I rested. I stepped up all vitamin and dietary regimes. Sometimes I see a doctor or an acupuncturist. As I felt I was losing the battle, I even tried antibiotics, but to no avail. It was laryngitis, an express train of a bug, headed right for my voice box.
When I awakened this morning, I could feel how swollen my throat was. I experienced a moment of utter denial. I wanted to close my eyes and go back to sleep. I just didn’t want this to be happening. But it was. Tonight, I had been scheduled to be the alto soloist for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I was also scheduled during the day for a callback audition for the role of Carmen with a local company.
I knew that if I had to cancel, I had better get on it. I got up and did a steam. I went into the studio and sang a few faltering, husky notes. I felt a willfulness come over me. I just wanted to sing. I screwed my courage to the sticking place, (not remembering where that got Lady Macbeth) and tried to sing a phrase.
I felt angry, stubborn. Then I caught sight of my teacher’s face. (I keep a framed photo of my teacher and mentor, the late Dickson Titus, in my studio.) “Don’t worry,” I said to him. “I won’t do anything stupid.”
I went to the phone to cancel.
The conductor said she didn’t have anyone in mind for backup. I told her I have a list, and got busy with calls. Fortunately, singers are up early on Sunday, getting ready for church, and on one of the calls I struck gold. A truly gifted mezzo was available and willing to do it. I gave her the conductor’s number and wished her luck.
As soon as she said yes, I felt relief wash over me, and happiness that the audience would get the show they deserve. This Messiah is a big deal in its small community and a highlight of many people’s holiday season. I know I have done the right thing, not only for myself, but also for the show. And, as it turns out, this would not be the final round for Carmen. The conductor very kindly agreed to hear me in a couple of weeks.
In my situation, I work without an agent, and for smaller companies, so if I cancel, I feel that I have a responsibility to help find a replacement, or cancel early enough for the company to find someone. (Fortunately, this was the Messiah, not Messaien.) As larger companies more often decide to forgo the expense of covers, however, I think this sort of pressure is reaching more and more singers. (See the sidebar for two singers’ perspectives.)
No one is an expert on your throat but you. The question of when you can sing without hurting yourself is yours alone to answer, just as the consequences are yours alone to bear. The bottom line is longevity and making the healthiest choice for your voice that you can. Of course, other ailments besides laryngitis may force cancellation as well, though most singers I know, myself included, will sing over small colds, stomach problems, and the like. But as Dr. Anthony Jahn said in his CS article on the subject: “Do not force the voice, even to the level of a stage whisper. If you do, you may quickly acquire a harmful and excessively tense way of phonation, which may persist even after the voice returns.” (See “Surviving Laryngitis,” April 2002.)
One of the reasons I think it is so hard to cancel, to let go in this way, is that we just don’t prepare for it. When we’re preparing for a performance, we picture ourselves doing it. We practice. We rehearse. We visualize. In a way, it can almost feel as if it has happened already, because to be fully prepared, you have to have already done it, both vocally and mentally. So when the moment comes and it’s not going to happen, it’s a drastic sea change that can be disorienting, and difficult to face.
So, back to my “day off.”
I drove to the video store and rented Apollo 13, feeling the need for triumph in the face of adversity. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony: “Houston, we have a problem.”) I stopped at the bakery to ask for the sweetest pastry they have, though I had to point to the one I wanted because I couldn’t be heard.
On the car radio, people were talking about the history of the Supreme Court and how a potential nominee had made a bad impression on the president because he had a broken wrist and had just ridden eight hours on a train, so he didn’t get the nomination. I guess his understudy got the gig.
As I watched the movie, I was reminded that the main astronaut (played by Tom Hanks) only got to go on the mission because another astronaut had an ear infection. Then, at the last minute, Kevin Bacon got to fly for Gary Sinise, who tested positive for measles. Understudies, it seems, are everywhere. So I guess having to cancel because of illness doesn’t make me a bad singer or an irresponsible colleague. It just makes me—what’s the phrase I’m looking for?—a human being!
I’m not putting forth how I handled this situation as any sort of model or recommendation. I think it’s a very personal thing. Maybe someone else would have handled it differently. Maybe I will handle it differently if it happens in the future. But I did my best to stay with what was happening in the moment and make the most responsible decision I could.
So here I am, not reveling in the glory of Handel’s music or enjoying some post-audition elation but sitting at home, feeling a bit glum, writing this column, watching Apollo 13, and eating pastry.
I heard Jack Kornfield (a meditation teacher and author of After the Ecstasy, the Laundry) say recently, “If you’re not enjoying your life . . . compared to what?” This is it. This is how it is. No, I’m not where I had planned to be at this moment, but I am taking care of myself and honoring the music I love, and that feels good. I even feel happy for my friend, who may be taking a bow right now that might have been mine. I hope she gets a good hand. She deserves it.