Second-year Ryan Opera Center member Richard Ollarsaba is living the dream of a young opera singer. This talented bass-baritone is covering Mariusz Kwiecień in the title role of Don Giovanni and David Govertsen as the Majordomo in Capriccio. (He is also in the cast as a servant). In a completely unprecedented turn of events, he was asked to go on in both roles within one week.
On Wednesday, October 8, he performed the Don for the matinee performance, subbing for the indisposed Kwiecień. The following Wednesday, Peter Rose (La Roche in Capriccio) could not perform, which put the domino effect into motion: Govertsen performed the role of La Roche; Ollarsaba performed as the Majordomo; and Lyric Opera Chorus member Kenneth Nichols took Ollarsaba's place as one of the servants in the ensemble.
First things first - what is a cover?
Basically the cover is an operatic understudy. Ollarsaba describes it as, "being ready in the event that the principal artist that you are covering is unable to perform." Now that he's done it, he also adds: "It's a lot of responsibility and you don't fully realize that until you're actually doing it. This is what you prepare for; this is exactly why they hired you. You have to be ready to go."
Practice makes perfect
At Lyric, covering a principal role is a thorough and intense process. "We are present from day one of rehearsals and we are obligated to be at every rehearsal up until the first performance, which is different from a lot of other companies I've been acquainted with," says Ollarsaba. At other companies, the covers are only brought in during the tech period to learn the blocking and other stage directions.
The advantage to this process at Lyric is having complete access to the music and staging rehearsals: "You see the entire process, so when things change on a dime in rehearsals, you're actually there to see it instead of just hearing about it days later."
Once the rehearsal period moves to the stage, all of the covers participate in cover staging, which is an abbreviated scene-by-scene runthrough so the covers can go through the blocking to address the technical aspects: "This gives us the opportunity to flesh out the characters the way the principals did, just in case we do have to go on."
Ollarsaba had the added benefit of studying and performing the title role in the Ryan Opera Center's summer workshop production of Don Giovanni (pictured right).
When the phone rings…
For Don Giovanni, Ollarsaba had to work quickly: "I found out for sure at 10am for a 2pm curtain that Mariusz was not going to perform that day. I was as calm and composed as I could be in that situation, but that didn't stop the adrenaline from pumping through my body."
He not only had to be prepared to sing the role, but also cope with the very dramatic staging: "There are, of course, a lot of variables that you specifically have not rehearsed with the cast on the completed set. I was very well acquainted with the production from having sat in on rehearsals, and on a few occasions I was able to rehearse scenes when Mariusz wasn't available, but having to do an entire show, on short notice, was very surreal."
As the performance drew closer, "I tried very hard not to let my subconscious check in and say 'Do you know what's going on?' I tried very much to say to myself, 'No, it's all about the music and the production.'"
Don Giovanni, of course, has some very intimate and visceral moments with the characters of Donna Anna (Marina Rebeka) and Zerlina (Andriana Chuchman), but Ollarsaba credits the cast for putting him at ease: "They are all the utmost professionals and they all knew exactly what needed to be done. They could not have been more supportive and courteous. With everyone, I kept asking, 'What do you need?' and they could answer, 'No, no, no, what do you need?'"
After such a high-profile substiution the week before, Ollarsaba felt a bit more at ease as the Majordomo during Capriccio: "We had a little more notice, and it helped that it was an evening performance so I had more time during the day. I love Capriccio, it's very conversational and less action-packed - there are not any specific technical things that you need to accomplish. It's very realistic, so it was a lot easier to go into that. The overall atmosphere was a lot more relaxed."
(Ollarsaba, far left, with his fellow servants in Capriccio)
Costume crunch time
In addition to having to prepare to sing on short notice, Ollarsaba still had to find something to wear as Don Giovanni. The costume department's priority for any production is perfecting the principals' wardrobe. They do not create duplicate costumes for the covers, so in the event of a substitution, everyone has to work quickly.
"I probably wore about 10 or maybe 20% of Mariusz's actual costumes. He and I are such different body types, so they really couldn't use most of his pieces on me," he laughs. (Ollarsaba is one of the tallest singers at Lyric!) He was able to wear one coat and one robe - for the rest, the wardrobe staff culled pieces from the stock collection to create a series of costumes that mimicked very closely Ana Kuzmanic's period-specific designs. (Don Giovanni's robe, pictured right)
Ollarsaba was already in the cast as one of the servants in Countess Madeleine's household in Capriccio, so the staff was able to fairly easily adapt his existing costume to fit the Majordomo's role.
Staying focused in performance
Ollarsaba went on and the show proceeded without a hitch, though much of his performance in Don Giovanni is still a blur: "I don't know I how I did! I had some ears in the audience, and there was a good reception for sure. But as far as what I thought of myself, I just wanted to make sure that I did my job and lived up to the expectations of the cast and the production, so it could still go on smoothly for an audience."
The one time that he was able to actually think about what he was doing was at the very end of the show, during the technically dazzling descent into hell devised by director Robert Falls and set designer Walt Spangler.
"I will say that the descent was the easiest part of the whole show. One, because it's literally the last two minutes. Two, because the table does all the work and I just have to sing my lines and hang on. It was actually the one time during the show where I was able to check in and think 'This is a lot of fun!' My responsibility in the show was coming to an end, so I could just be like a little kid. I'm sliding down a table, and there's a giant hole with lights and smoke coming out of it. I couldn't help smiling."
Richard Ollarsaba will be on stage at Lyric as a servant in the remaining performances of Capriccio on October 22, 25, and 28. You can also see him in Anna Bolena (Rochefort), Tosca (Angelotti) and The Passenger (SS officer) later this season. He is covering Henry VIII in Bolena and Biterolf in Tannhäuser.
- Top: Richard Ollarsaba (credit Devon Cass); Monsieur Taupe and the Majordomo in Capriccio and the title role of Don Giovanni (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
- Ollarsaba as Don Giovanni in the Ryan Opera Center's summer workshop (credit Jaclyn Simpson / Lyric Opera of Chicago)
- Ollarsaba and his fellow servants in Capriccio (credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago)