April 12, 2021

Hey! You're on! Lyric's last-minute cast changes

Understudies are the mostly unsung heroes of the opera world. They lip-synch their memorized roles from the sidelines, spend hours in rehearsals and practice rooms, get one chance to run the staging, and then, usually, work on other projects and wait for the call that doesn’t come. 

Until it does. 

Someone has laryngitis. Or food poisoning. Or a sprained ankle. Or a family crisis. Or some other unexpected calamity. The call comes from Lyric’s rehearsal department: How fast can you get here? 

In many cases, the person being called to save the day is a current or recent member of The Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center. Ideally, the understudy gets the news in the morning (or night before) and has the day to prepare. Sometimes, notice is far shorter, resulting in accelerated preparations and an electrified atmosphere backstage. There are times when an understudy is summoned because the star isn’t quite sure how he/she might feel a few hours hence, and wants the security of a backup waiting in the wings. 

Whether it happens before the curtain or after intermission, a cast change is announced from the stage. The initial brief murmurs of dismay soon give way to enthusiastic applause as the understudy rises to the challenge and almost always triumphs under daunting circumstances.  

Amanda Majeski (seen here as the Marschallin/Der Rosenkavalier in Lyric's 2015/16 Season) stepped in as Countess Almaviva/Figaro at Lyric in 2010 and at the Met in 2014.

Amanda Majeski stepping in as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, first at Lyric and then at the Met, exemplifies the dream-come-true journey from understudy to star. As a Ryan Opera Center member in 2010, she understudied Countess Almaviva while cast as a peasant girl, and then got the call "at about 3:00 in the afternoon the day before the show—which is a luxury in that situation,” she recalled in an Opera News interview. “All of a sudden, I was in a cab headed to Lyric to do the costume fitting, the wig fitting, meet with the assistant director. I met with [conductor] Sir Andrew [Davis] the day of the show—and the next thing I knew, I was onstage, singing 'Porgi amor.' Aaaaaaaah! The adrenaline just takes over and you go. By the end of the show, I was crying and didn't even realize it. It was wild, but it was one of the best times I have ever had onstage." She sang a second performance as well.

The soprano was scheduled to make her Met debut in the same role four years later in December 2014 (second cast), and had been engaged as the understudy for the first cast in the fall. History repeated itself when the leading lady became indisposed. Majeski sang a few key rehearsals, and then got the email advising that she would sing the opening-night performance (when all the major critics attend) to open the Met’s season. Her response? “Crying, happy, excited, terrified, uncertain, thrilled—all the emotions,” she later recounted. Her understudy days behind her, Majeski opened Lyric’s 2015/16 season as the Countess in a new production.

Here are some other examples from the past two decades of then-current Ryan Opera Center Ensemble members and alumni saving the day on short notice:

  • Erin Wood portrayed Lisa/The Queen of Spades for one performance, replacing Katarina Dalayman. 

  • Alicia Berneche (alumna) was a late replacement for Dawn Upshaw in The Great Gatsby for the entire run.

Alicia Berneche as Daisy/The Great Gatsby at Lyric (2000/01).

  • Erin Wood (alumna) portrayed Sieglinde/Die Walküre, replacing Deborah Voigt.

  • Wayne Tigges stepped in as Figaro/The Marriage of Figaro—in the final act on opening night, no less—when the show couldn’t go on with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo. Tigges sang all subsequent performances as well. 

  • Scott Ramsay portrayed Edgardo/Lucia di Lammermoor opposite Natalie Dessay for the final performance, replacing Marcello Álvarez; Patrick Miller stepped in as Arturo.

  • Elizabeth Grohowski (alumna) portrayed Erda/Siegfried for one performance, replacing Jill Grove.

Wayne Tigges as Figaro with Isabel Bayrakdarian as Susanna at Lyric (2003/04).

  • Erin Wall (alumna) sang Donna Anna/Don Giovanni for the opening night of Lyric’s 50th Anniversary Season, replacing Karita Mattila.

  • Bryan Griffin portrayed Tamino/The Magic Flute for one performance, replacing Michael Schade.

  • Susanna Phillips sang one leading-lady performance of Romeo and Juliet, replacing alumna Dina Kuznetsova; and Joseph Kaiser went on once as Romeo, replacing alumnus Matthew Polenzani.

Scott Ramsey was cast as Arturo but got to sing Edgardo/Lucia di Lammermoor in Lyric's 2003/04 Season.

  • Edward Mout went on once as Almaviva/The Barber of Seville and Philip Dothard stepped in twice as Figaro, replacing John Osborn and Nathan Gunn respectively. 

  • Darren Stokes portrayed General Groves/Doctor Atomic, replacing Eric Owens.

  • Angela Mannino portrayed Blonde/Abduction from the Seraglio on opening night, replacing Aleksanda Kurzak.

  • René Barbera stepped in as Edgardo/Lucia di Lammermoor, replacing Giuseppe Filianoti for the final performance, which resulted in the entire principal cast being either current or former Ryan Opera Center members: Susanna Phillips, Quinn Kelsey, Christian Van Horn, Cecelia Hall, Paul Scholten, Bernard Holcomb. 

  • Evan Boyer portrayed Sarastro/The Magic Flute twice, replacing Günther Groissböck.

Erin Wall (seen here in Lyric's Così fan tutte, 2006/07), opened Lyric's 50th anniversary season in 2004/05 as Donna Anna in a new production of Don Giovanni.

  • Kiri Deonarine portrayed Gilda/Rigoletto, replacing Albina Shagimuratova.

  • Richard Ollarsaba stepped in for the title role/Don Giovanni, replacing Mariusz Kwiecień for one performance.

  • Tracy Cantin sang the title role/Anna Bolena, replacing Sondra Radvanovsky starting in Act Two, scene two of the final performance.

  • Diana Newman stepped in for the final act as Leïla/The Pearl Fishers, replacing Marina Rebeka.
  • Emily Birsan (alumna) portrayed Violetta/La traviata in three performances, replacing Albina Shagimuratova.

  • Mario Rojas portrayed Alfredo/La traviata in one performance, replacing Giorgio Berrugi.

  • Ann Toomey portrayed Musetta/La bohème in four performances, replacing Danielle de Niese.

Header photo: Susanna Phillips as Juliet/Roméo et Juliette in Lyric's 2015/16 production—a role she covered in Lyric's 2006/07 Season; Todd Rosenberg.

All other photos: Cory Weaver, Dan Rest