Monday, December 23, 2019

Standing-In

While taking a few days off last week, I caught up with an old movie called 42nd Street, one of those behind-the-scenes-stories about the trials and tribulations of producing a big Broadway musical.
The producer (permanently-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown), had to face a major crisis when his leading lady (still-madly-in-love-with-her-old-vaudeville-partner) broke her ankle the night before the big try-out in Philadelphia.
Where to find a replacement? In the chorus line, of course: the male juvenile who couldn't dance for rocks in his socks knew the new star was there all the time. After a rigorous five hours of I-can't-do-it!-rehearsal, she carries off the leading part with aplomb and panache.
Such things never happen in real life, of course - or do they?
Apart from watching a video or two on my holiday, I tried catching up on filing my newspaper cuttings. Amongst them I found a Christmas letter from a friend in England, and thought I'd drop him a note the next day to bring him up to date.
David, my friend, has worked at the Royal Opera House in London for 20 years or more, first as a repetiteur (him what teaches the singers their notes by repeating them until the singers have got them glued onto their brains), and more recently on the admin side. He's also conducted occasional performances.
Before I started the letter next day, I glanced at the ODT's News Digest section. And did a double-take of a significant kind: David, this very same friend, was mentioned in dispatches.
And why? Seems that during a performance of the opera Manon at the Royal Opera House, the lead baritone had fallen sick at the end of the first act. And the understudy had been sent home for the evening.
What to do?
David and the producer of the opera took counsel together, and came up with a stand-in job between them. David would sing the part from the wings, and the producer would go on stage and mime it in front of the audience.
The ROH is an enormous place to fill with a human voice, and I've seen more than one singer swallowed up in its cavernous spaces. David can sing, but for all that he's hardly what you'd call an operatic baritone. How he managed to make his voice heard from the wings is beyond me. Perhaps he was fitted up with some subtle form of microphone: a real no-no under normal circumstances in an opera house.
So standing in for the star does happen in real life - and I've experienced it happening at least one other almost-as-amazing time.
I was sitting in my Tooting Bec flat in South London some 20 years ago, listening on the radio to a performance of CarminaBurana at the AlbertHall. The baritone soloist was winging his way up through the high notes of his part when he came to a stifled halt: a strange shuffling and scuffling was heard on the airwaves - along with general wonderment from the audience.
It was a warm night; the Albert Hall was packed for the Proms season. We learned that the stuffiness and heat had overcome the poor baritone, all wrapped up as he was in his dress suit. Possibly he ran out of air from scaling heights which baritones are not wont to scale. (A couple of days later, on television, we would see the fellow tottering backwards into a row of first violinists, with music stands, chairs and musicians scattering in all directions.)
The management were save by a most remarkable thing: a young man who'd recently sung the same part in a production in the north, leaped up from his seat in the audience, raced round backstage, offered his services to the perplexed management - and was accepted! They tucked him up in a tuxedo, and whisked him on stage, where he proceeded to sing as though he'd been contracted to do the job.
And he too carried it off with panache and aplomb.

This column first appeared in Column 8, July 13th, 1994


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