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Opera 101: When a cover singer gets “the call”

Second-year Ryan Opera Center member  Richard Ollarsaba is covering roles in Don Giovanni and Capriccio and has had the very unusual experience of being asked to perform in both operas in the span of one week. He takes us through the process of being a cover singer and what happens when the call comes.

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

Photo credits:

  • 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)

 

Subjects:

Critics agree: “The operatic stars are in alignment” for CAPRICCIO

Lyric's production of Strauss's Capriccio is opera at its finest, with a wonderful cast led by Renée Fleming, a sophisticated 1920s setting, and unparalleled musicianship from conductor Sir Andrew Davis  and the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Read what the critics have to say about this "intelligent, tasteful, funny, serious" opera.

The Chicago Tribune raves four stars for Capriccio: "the operatic stars are in alignment ... in Lyric's loving revival." Lyric's production of Strauss's final masterpiece is truly opera at its finest, with a wonderful cast led by Renée Fleming, a sophisticated 1920s setting, and unparalleled musicianship from conductor Sir Andrew Davis and the Lyric Opera Orchestra. This sophisticated drawing room comedy is at once "intelligent, tasteful, funny, serious" (Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times), but it's only at Lyric through October 28, so grab your seat today!

Here's what else the critics are saying:

"Highly recommended" - Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times 

This production makes a "lush argument for shaking hands across waters, for the marriage of words and music." - Aaron Hunt, New City

Renée Fleming is "as witty and charming as she is beautiful" with "peaches-and-creamy tone and melting phrases." - John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune 

Renée Fleming is "radiant … One can't imagine any singer today better suited to the role of the Countess Madeleine " - Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review 

"In the famous final aria, Fleming spins the silver threads of lyricism that Strauss made his unique gift to the soprano repertoire." - Aaron Hunt, New City

Sir Andrew Davis leads "a veritable master class in Strauss conducting." - John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune 

"Andrew Davis, always a superb Strauss conductor, and the Lyric Orchestra ... have outdone themselves" - Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

"More than anyone else, this was Sir Andrew Davis's show. Few conductors can equal the Lyric Opera's music director in Strauss, and Davis's fluent, spirited yet light-footed account of this score was masterful, maintaining a fleet, conversational pace and rising seamlessly to the breakout lyrical moments." - Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review 

 "Fully inside the opera's conversational ebb and flow, Davis elicited exceptionally sensitive, refined playing from the Lyric Orchestra, beginning with the sublime sextet that opens the opera and continuing through the touching final pages." - John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune 

"Even by their standard, the playing of the Lyric Opera Orchestra was beyond reproach, with a refined quicksilver quality that suits this restless music." - Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review 

"Lyric has surrounded its starry soprano with a top-drawer supporting cast" - Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review 

"Anne Sofie von Otter brought a natural vocal ease and willowy presence to the glamorous actress Clairon." - Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review 

"…the splendid Swedish mezzo-soprano played Clairon with a flamboyant hauteur to match her over-the-top flapper outfits." - John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune 

"American tenor William Burden captured the self-confidence and musicality as the composer Flamand." - Andrew Patner, Chicago Sun-Times

"Audun Iversen made a most impressive company debut as Olivier. The Norwegian baritone displayed a warm and flexible voice and deftly balanced the comedy with sincerity" - Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review 

"Peter Rose was ideal casting for the cynical yet savvy impresario La Roche" - Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review 

Bo Skovhus "provided the funniest moments of the evening with the gauche dilettante's atrocious acting." - Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review 

Photo credits:

  • Capriccio production photos credit Todd Rosenberg / Lyric Opera of Chicago

Capturing CAPRICCIO's magic on screen

Strauss's Capriccio  (on stage Oct. 6-28) is an intimate and sophisticated opera that takes place at a party at a gorgeous estate. Four presentations will feature live high-definition video broadcast to four screens placed in the balconies. How does the opera go from stage to screen? Matt Hoffman from HMS Media explains the basics of live production.

Richard Strauss's final opera Capriccio  (on stage Oct. 6-28) is an intimate and sophisticated opera that takes place at a party at a gorgeous estate. The stylish production  set in the 1920s and features intricate art deco details and an all-star including Renée Fleming, Anne Sofie von Otter, Bo Skovhus, William Burden, Audun Iversen, and Peter Rose.

For those who do not want to miss a moment, four presentations will feature live high-definition video broadcast to four screens placed in the balconies on Oct. 9, 15, 22, and 28. How does the opera go from stage to screen? Matt Hoffman from HMS Media will be directing all four live broadcasts and took us through some of the basics of live production, which is an art unto itself. 

How many cameras will there be?

We will have 5 cameras: two in the back of the house, one left and one right, and a robotic camera in the orchestra pit.

How do you prepare for the live performance?

The HMS team attended and recorded the Capriccio dress rehearsal. As the television director, I have been studying that recording and making script notes about blocking, timing, and other technical cues that will affect our coverage. 

What does your script look like for the broadcast?

The script contains notes about who is singing and how the performers are blocked in each scene. We will not pre-determine every shot, and our TV production team will be making live decisions based on the actors' performances in the moment. Our coverage will be different each night. We are performing just like the singers on stage.

How do you communicate during the live performance?

My assistant director will be continuously updating us on what's happening next based on the script and our notes. I direct the cameras and call the sequence of shots to be featured on screen. My technical director operates the switcher per my instructions sending the video to the screens. It's a tightly choreographed collaboration among the four camera operators in the house and our technical team in the booth. Unplanned events can happen. We at HMS specialize in covering live theater, music, and dance and are prepared for anything!

What is the biggest challenge you face?

Our biggest challenge on Capriccio will be covering the large scenes featuring many performers, capturing the nuances of what every person is doing on stage.

What about these broadcasts might surprise audiences?

I think that most audience members might not realize just how many people are working behind the scenes to make the television coverage happen. If they were standing in the control booth, I think they might be amazed by the constant high level of communication and activity.

What is the most fun part of the broadcast?

When our television production team is humming along in perfect sync with the performers, it's a beautiful and exhilarating time for all involved.

Learn more about the custom-made video screens for this production in the October edition of Lyric Notes, our monthly enewsletter.

Photo credits:

  • A look at the video screens during the Capriccio dress rehearsal. (Photo by Andrew Cioffi / Lyric Opera of Chicago)

 

An Insider's Guide to CAPRICCIO

Go inside Lyric's production of Strauss's  Capriccio (on stage October 6-28) with video and audio previews, articles, photos, and more. 

Capriccio, Richard Strauss's last opera, runs from October 6 through 28 at Lyric. Conducted by Sir Andrew Davis and starring Lyric's creative consultant Renée Fleming in one of her signature roles, this sophisticated opera takes you inside the ultimate dinner party. Countess Madeleine (Fleming) is torn between two men—one a poet and the other a musician. Meanwhile, her brother is out to seduce a famous actress. Will he succeed? And who will she choose? Capriccio also stars Anne Sofie von Otter (Clairon), Bo Skovhus (Count), William Burden (Flamand), Audun Iversen (Olivier), and Peter Rose (La Roche).

Video preview with Renée Fleming

 

Articles with insights from the cast and creative team

Critics agree: “The operatic stars are in alignment” for Capriccio
Lyric's production of Strauss's Capriccio is opera at its finest, with a wonderful cast led by Renée Fleming, a sophisticated 1920s setting, and unparalleled musicianship from conductor Sir Andrew Davis  and the Lyric Opera Orchestra. Here's what the critics have to say about this "intelligent, tasteful, funny, serious" production. READ MORE

A closer look: Big screen magnification for Capriccio
Richard Strauss’s Capriccio is an opera for an ensemble of fabulous singing actors; the detailed give-and-take between the performers is always a joy to watch. So that this aspect of the production can be more thoroughly appreciated by those in seats located at a fair distance from the stage, Lyric is installing IMAG (the audio-visual acronym for “image modification”) screens in the first balcony and upper balcony for October 9, 15, 22, and 28. READ MORE

Capturing Capriccio's magic on screen
Strauss's Capriccio (on stage Oct. 6-28) is an intimate and sophisticated opera that takes place at a party at a gorgeous estate. Four presentations will feature live high-definition video broadcast to four screens placed in the balconies. How does the opera go from stage to screen? Matt Hoffman from HMS Media explains the basics of live production. READ MORE

A superstar cast for Strauss’s Capriccio
From October 6 through 28, creative consultant Renée Fleming once again graces the stage at Lyric singing one of her greatest roles. But the rest of the cast that surrounds her is no less exciting. Lyric’s production features five outstanding singers who will shine as the other characters in this remarkable “Conversation Piece for Music.” READ MORE

Strauss is for Her: Renée Fleming relishes the master’s final opera, Capriccio
Countess Madeleine in Capriccio is beautiful, elegant, highly intelligent, irresistibly charming, and soaring forth in some of Richard Strauss's most heavenly music. In other words, the role is a natural for Renée Fleming, as Lyric audiences will see and hear when Capriccio returns for the first time in 20 years. READ MORE

 

Capriccio Audio Preview

Music director Sir Andrew Davis shares the synopsis and excerpts from Strauss's Capriccio. Recordings used by permission of EMI Classics.

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