Understudies play key role for the local opera company

MIDDLEBURY — Imagine watching weeks of rehearsals of an opera, memorizing three hours’ worth of music backstage, and learning blocking by watching others perform — all for the chance of performing a leading role.
Now imagine being thrust onto the stage after just two nights of rehearsal with the entire cast.
Such is the life of cover performers, the operatic role otherwise known as an understudy. Operatic covers memorize lines and staging without stepping foot on stage, yet must be readily available to go on should the main singer be unable to perform.
For many covers, entire shows will find them backstage or nearby, awaiting a call to race on stage. But once cast, they rarely have the chance to perform on stage.
“To coach a big role like this takes a long time,” artistic director of the Opera Company of Middlebury Doug Anderson explained. “And (they) will probably never go on.”
Not so with the Opera Company of Middlebury.  As with some smaller opera companies, covers with the OCM are guaranteed one night of performance per run, so that even if the main performers never miss a night, they are still able to display their hard work.
At the end of a two-week run of Rossini’s opera The Italian Girl in Algiers,the cover cast performed last Friday night to a full house. In keeping with most cover performances, the singers were accompanied by a single piano, which, though less of an orchestral presence, gave their voices the true spotlight. The audience roared responded enthusiastically, roared with laughter at the hilarious end of the first act and were awed by the power of the casts’ voices.
Following their final bow, the cover cast mingled with the audience in the theater’s atrium, still glowing from their performance.  Michael Miller, the cover for Taddeo and the youngest cast member at age 20, was thrilled to have made his professional debut.
“Tonight was entirely a blast. My colleagues and I were having fun up there. It’s cool because even though we had very little rehearsal time, when we went up we had fun and let the music tell us what to do. It was just pure joy.”
The Opera Company of Middlebury may be the smallest opera company in the country, with around 200 seats in the Town Hall Theater as compared to the 710 seats in neighboring Opera North of Lebanon, N.H., but its reputation has been growing in statute since its debut 11 years ago. Because of the high quality of performances and the camaraderie developed between the cast and the community, competition for the parts has become increasingly intense.
Those hoping to sing in the summer performance for OCM must first brave an audition that this winter drew more than 500 auditions in New York City and in Middlebury for the handful of roles. Professional singers who auditioned hailed from Michigan, Boston, Montreal and Vermont.
For those chosen for cover roles, the actors must accept the notion that they’ll be doing a lot of work for not as much glory. To counter that, Anderson says allowing covers one live performance not only provides them a venue to showcase their hard work, but also leads to a better cover cast.
“You get better covers if you let them perform. I can tell a cover singer ‘you’ll get pictures, you’ll be able to tell people you sang that role at the Opera Company of Middlebury,’ so they really get something out of it. And we get terrific covers who, any one of them, could have gone on opening night and been absolutely terrific.”
Being a cover is no small task. Middlebury’s production of The Italian Girl in Algiers has male covers also singing as members of the ensemble. That means they are on stage every night, and must memorize their cover roles in addition to their ensemble roles.
The female covers, meanwhile, had never sung on stage until shortly before their performance, as they had been preparing off-stage for the duration of the main cast’s rehearsal process.  The cover blocking rehearsal, two days before the cover performance, was the first time the cover cast had worked together at all.
The very next day was the “live” dress rehearsal, while details, movements and acting were still being worked out. To complicate things, because several of the ensemble actors have day jobs, there were several empty roles in the rehearsals, one of which was substituted by Cherry Duke, who played Isabella in the main cast.
Baritone Ryne Cherry, a singer based in Boston who covered the lead male role of Mustafa, described covering with the OCM as “definitely the most professional experience I’ve had as a cover; most true to the real-life and the big opera houses in the world. It’s not an easy task… For our cover performance we’re expected to pretty much know what the principals are doing.”
Singing in the ensemble while rehearsing and memorizing the role of Mustafa has proved a challenge, he added.
“It can be very easy for your brain to get a little confused,” Cherry said before the covers’ first rehearsal. “Something could go awry—you could very easily jump to the other part in the show. That’s why it’s important to be sharp, to know your stuff, and make sure that brain’s going, because it’s all about the brain when you sing.”
For cover actors, it’s all just part of the job.
“Within one, two, rehearsals, we can pick it up,” said soprano Suzanne Rigden, a bubbly blonde who gave a terrific, almost-manic interpretation of her character, Elvira. “It’s fun to have that energy on stage with a group of people.”
There’s also a lot of camaraderie that’s developed between the two casts in a small company.
Speaking after the dress rehearsal, Miller, a sophomore at the University of Michigan, said working in such close contact with the lead cast has been an integral aspect of his debut experience.
“They’re so willing to help us out and talk with us about what they’re thinking of the character… and also working with us outside of rehearsal time so we can understand what’s going on with the character.”
While the covers work to follow the stage directions given to the main cast, Anderson is also interested in their fresh interpretations of the opera.
“I think we will get substantially different performances,” Anderson said before the cover performance. “Our two (Isabella’s) are very different women, very different kinds of people. They both, fortunately, have gorgeous mezzo voices, and all of the technique that it takes to sing that, but how they play ‘captivating and sexy’ inevitably will be different and I think that’s exciting.”
Anderson said that the cover show, with tickets offered at half-price, still guarantees a full house.
“It makes people in Middlebury want to see the show twice. They really enjoyed the show, they think it’s great, and they want to come see completely different interpretations by different singers, so quite a few people will march up to the box office and ask to buy two tickets, one for the opening performance and one for the covers, which is great.”
For Jessica Renfro, who delivered an exciting and captivating interpretation of Isabella, the intimacy of working in Middlebury has been an asset throughout the rehearsal process. When performing on such a small stage, she said after the dress rehearsal, “you know they can see your slightest facial expression as opposed to a 3,000-seat theater where you have to act more with your body. It’s nice, though. It’s nice and intimate.”
Working with the Opera Company of Middlebury was an exciting first for each of the five covers, and though the cast spans years of experience and varying backgrounds, each were also eager to return for another performance and grateful for the opportunity to preform on stage.
“Whenever you cover, you almost never get to perform, so you always have it in the back of your head, like, I think I could do it,” Renfo said before Friday’s sold-out performance, then flashed a big smile and added, “Now we get to do it.”
The Italian Girl in Algiers from Addison Independent on Vimeo.

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