I want to be an opera singer: On the bench

Fresh out of the conservatoire and diving headlong into the world of professional opera singing, one, some or many of your first contracts are likely to be as a cover, which is what the opera business calls its understudies.

There’s a glib orthodoxy in the business that for young singers covering is “a great way of learning a role”. Let me disabuse you of this notion right now. Covering is a terrible way of learning a role. Compared with actually doing the role, you typically get less notice to learn it, less rehearsal time, less or no contact with the main directorial and musical team, less scope for your own input, development and interpretation of the role, and much less notice if you actually have to perform it.

As with a lot of aspects of this job, you need to bear in mind that the further up the food chain you go, the easier almost every aspect of the job gets. The notable exception is the pressure and expectation: if you’re at the top, receiving the best support that money can buy, and being paid more than everyone else, you’re expected to deliver. On the other hand, people know that covering is a tough gig, and so if you can do a decent job of it, people will be impressed.

At various stages of my career I’ve found myself covering a fair amount – not just when I was starting out, but also during a couple of phases (one of them being now) when I’ve been exploring new repertoire. Here’s some things to mull over as you sit at the back of the stalls trying to work out how the hell you’re supposed to take notes in the dark.**

By the way, I’m working on the assumption that your ultimate career goal involves being the principal artist rather than the cover. Even if it doesn’t, given the fees involved at all but the very highest level, being a lifelong cover isn’t realistically the viable career option it once may have been. So buckle up and keep your eye on the road ahead.

I’m also mainly discussing how covering works in the UK, but most of the points are transferable to some degree or other.

Polite, Prepared and Professional

A company will give a young singer a cover contract at least partly in order to have a closer look at them in a working situation. This means they can check out crucial aspects of your employability that can’t be judged in an audition: how punctual and reliable you are, how well you learn your roles before rehearsal, whether you’re able to work as part of a team, whether you smell nice, and so on.

That means there’s a sense in which this is an extended audition – in fact, that’s true of every job you do throughout your career – but bear in mind that it’s not just your performance of the role which is being assessed. In fact, that’s the one thing about which they already have an idea, which is why you got the job in the first place.

So make sure you know how to read a schedule, get yourself to rehearsals in plenty of time and decently turned out, try to be polite and professional to all your colleagues, and learn your words and music as thoroughly as you can before you arrive.

In fact, if you’re given enough notice you should try to get your role learned before the main cast’s rehearsals start, since illness can strike at any point, and if you’re called up before the official start of cover rehearsals and already know your onions then you’ll have solved a problem for some potentially very helpful people.

If you live nearby, or you can arrive early, it’s a good idea to ask about the possibility of some calls with the company’s music staff before you start rehearsals. Most companies are happy to oblige, and you’ll probably be getting the inside line on the conductor’s tempi and dynamics – plus you’ll get to meet one or two of your repetiteurs before the official start of rehearsals, which should make day one of your actual rehearsals slightly less daunting.

Eye on the Ball

Cover rehearsals are strange things, partly because you’re preparing for something which pretty much everyone present hopes won’t happen, but largely because if it does happen, you won’t be performing opposite any of the people with whom you’re rehearsing. (Unless something goes very horribly wrong indeed).

You need to stay aware of that during the process, and resist the temptation to build anything too specific with your cover colleagues. Keep an eye on the parameters – for instance, if you’re covering Tosca and your cover Cavaradossi is a foot-and-a-half taller or shorter than the main cast Cavaradossi, you need to avoid getting too used to the shorter/taller version, and apply your mental preparation to the question of how you would approach each moment with a taller/shorter partner. And so on. On the other hand, if you detach yourself mentally and emotionally from a rehearsal process, you’ll be unprepared in another sense. So it’s a fine line you have to walk.

You’ll also find yourself having to translate blocking and other movements through 180 degrees, since you’ll mostly be watching the main cast on stage from the front. If you need to spot the covers in a stage rehearsal, they’re the ones in the auditorium mumbling “Enter down stage left er… no, right…. hang on…” to themselves while performing discreet complex semaphore. Some people find these mental gymnastics easy, some so fiendishly difficult that they can’t make notes until they’ve rehearsed it themselves. If you’re towards the latter end of the spectrum, try not to worry too much since the assistant director assigned to the covers should also have comprehensive notes on your blocking. In the meantime, visualisation exercises should help a bit – essentially putting your mind’s eye on stage facing out, either while you’re watching rehearsals or when you’re reviewing your notes afterwards.

At the end of most cover rehearsal periods a rehearsal-room run of the whole piece takes place, or as much of it as is feasible with the forces available. People will often refer to this as the “Cover Run” or even the “Cover Show”. That’s a bit of a hangover from the days when many companies would schedule a run of the piece with the cover cast on stage with the actual set, and often with something of an audience too. These days that’s very much a rarity, but the idea that the final run is some sort of showcase performance remains in the minds and language of many singers.

For my money I’ve never found that idea particularly helpful, since as soon as you think of something as a performance you start making committed decisions, which you might then have to change fundamentally if you end up on stage with the main cast, set, lights, costume, make-up etc etc etc. I’ve not got any concrete answer to this, other than again to retain a clear focus on the ultimate aim of the process, which is to take you to the point where you could slot in with the main cast if the need arose.

You’ll sometimes find that various members of the management, casting department etc of the company show up to all or part of the cover run. Don’t read too much into whether they show up or not (I guarantee that your older colleagues will complain about it either way), but if they are there it’s a good idea to use their presence to put yourself under a little bit of the pressure that you’d get from performing in front of a full audience.

Keep Singing

The first two weeks or so of your rehearsals might well be spent sitting and watching the main cast, for several hours a day. Whenever possible, make sure you set aside some time for your own singing. Otherwise, without you noticing, singing becomes something that other people do, and your body and mind can rapidly forget what it takes to do it yourself.

The Meritocracy

There are no set rules for the relationship between a principal artist and their cover. Some will work very closely together, and some will never even meet. It’s another oddity of the cover process that there’s usually no formal introduction / meet-the-team moment for the cover cast.

My rule of thumb as a cover is to let my principal lead the relationship – some will come and chat to you every day, some will say hello and then go their separate way, and some will want to pretend you don’t exist. That might seem a bit odd, but as a principal meeting your cover is not necessarily a thoroughly pleasant moment, since they’re only there in case something nasty happens to you – it’s a bit like being asked to proof-read your own obituary.

You’ll also find that many directors want to ignore your existence as covers. Again, they’re not being rude (well, not necessarily) – covers arrive during a vulnerable part of the creative process, and it can upset a director’s vision if he suddenly has to deal with the idea that Cavaradossi might one evening be 6’ 7” rather than 5’ 1”. Try not to take it personally.

If you’re covering a singer who is at the top of their game, you will get an unrivalled insight into how they achieve what they do – just remind yourself that you’re not there as a fan, but to analyse their process and take whatever you find useful from it. My general advice about learning from other singers is that it’s usually far more useful to watch them doing what they do, and how they prepare to do it, than to ask them how they do it. For that reason, at its best covering can be a golden opportunity for learning.

At other times you might find yourself covering a singer who is having a hard time of it. You may even find that you’re pretty sure you could do a better job yourself. Try to resist the temptation to bitch and gripe about that – in fact, you’d do well to be careful not to give that impression at all, since if you’re correct in your assessment, the company grapevine will be in overdrive making the same comparison, and people will very easily jump to the conclusion that you’re the architect of that rumour mill.

Because covering involves a lot of sitting and watching, usually in the company of singers who like to talk shop and form opinions, it’s easy for covers to turn into armchair critics, and the world has plenty of those already. It’s better to keep focused on doing your job to the best of your ability, and let others worry about how everyone else is doing. And be careful even about saying “I hope I/you get to go on” and such like to cover colleagues – essentially you’re wishing misfortune on the principal singer, which is not a good thought to send out to the universe. It’s enough on its own terms to have done a good job of preparation, even if you’re ultimately not needed.

Bear in mind that a singer in a main-cast role will most likely have worked for years to get themselves there, and for one reason or another will deserve that position. If it’s not immediately obvious that the reason is the quality of their performance (and bear in mind that a lot of experienced singers deliberately don’t hit 100% until opening night, so don’t leap to conclusions), then try to work out what it is that they bring to the party, as a singer, actor, colleague, professional, and whether that’s something you too can develop.

I promise you that this business is, by and large, a meritocracy – even if all the merits in question aren’t always the ones you might think. It’s part of your job as a professional to work out what those merits are, and where possible to acquire them yourself.

Match Day

It’s common sense to tell you to make a note of what day, time and where the performances you’re covering are taking place, but in practice it’s easier than you might think to lose track, especially once official cover rehearsals have finished (generally after the first couple of shows). Some companies will require you to be in or near the theatre during every performance, but many will be happy for you to be further afield, provided – and this is very important – they know where you are, how to contact you, and how quickly you’d be able to get to the theatre if needed. Keep in contact with the Company Manager, and make sure you’ve got their mobile number handy.

Even when the company doesn’t insist, it’s never a bad idea to remain within range of the theatre if you can, especially if you’re covering a long and onerous role. While most problems can be foreseen, singers and their voices can occasionally grind to a halt in the middle of a show, so you never know when you might be needed at the shortest of notice.

Wherever you are, the best approach is to treat the build-up to each show day as if you are going to be performing, ensuring that you’re physically and mentally prepared if the call comes. That’s easier when you’re first doing it than when you’ve covered 100+ performances without being needed. Don’t get caught out – there’s nothing worse than opportunity finally knocking just when you’ve locked the door.

And if you take only one piece of advice from me, please please resist the temptation to double-book yourself e.g. by taking a concert on an evening when you’re covering. It’s hard to turn work down, but if a company calls you to go on and you’re not able to fulfil your contractual obligation to do so, it can very easily be a career-ender. You might think you can come up with a Plan B and have a colleague on standby to step in for your concert if need be, but bear in mind that from their point of view you’re asking them to help you take two jobs at once, one of which could have been theirs; and also that, if you need to put Plan B into action, they could royally stitch you up by turning their phone off. Difficult as it is when you’re earning peanuts, the best bet is to play it straight.

Oh, and that reminds me – don’t turn your phone off until the curtain’s down on the last night.

Stepping Up to the Plate

You’ll know as soon as the phone rings and you see the company manager’s number. With any luck you might have a couple of days’ warning, although it could be a couple of hours or less.

Don’t panic – most company and stage managements are excellent at dealing with crises (opera being what it is, they get plenty of practice), and you may even find a moment to wonder at the feeling of being at the centre of such a complex machine, and receiving all the support it can give.

Right, snap out of it because time is of the essence. You’ll probably get a chance to rehearse (briefly) with any costume, props, set and, if you’re lucky, colleagues you’ve not encountered before, but don’t hang about. Part of your preparation should be to identify which are the trickiest aspects technically, and make sure that you now cover those – for instance, if you have to climb a ladder, juggle some props, undo some buttons that you’ve not had the chance to rehearse with, make sure you’re not doing it for the first time in front of 2000 people. You’ll have a member of the director’s team with you, so discuss it with them and ask if there’s anything you’ve missed.

The same goes for the musical side – you’ll probably get a few minutes with the conductor, possibly with a pianist (and piano if you’re especially fortunate). Again, as part of your preparation, think about what issues you’ll raise at this point – I’d suggest looking at tempi of solo sections (especially if you want to do something differently from your principal), and discussing cues you might need at tricky entries. Don’t overload it. Five or six points are probably plenty at such short notice, and the conductor should be impressed and reassured if you’ve clearly got your head in order.

When you get a chance to spend a few minutes on the set, work out the sight lines of the theatre and particularly whether and where there are monitors. You’ll need to watch the conductor more than usual.

During the show, trust stage management more than anyone else – they can give you a huge amount in terms of your entries, props and so on. When you’re on stage, with any luck you’ll be surrounded by colleagues who know the show extremely well, and you’ll find that most will be hugely supportive. In fact, as a principal it’s usually very exciting to have a cover on, and the overall energy of the performance often benefits. On the other hand, don’t read too much into it if any of them don’t seem overjoyed at your presence – perhaps your principal was their best buddy and they’re upset not to see them there. Or perhaps their dog is sick or they’ve left the iron on at home. Keep focused on doing your job well and not falling into the orchestra pit.

Afterwards, don’t forget to thank everyone who’s helped you, especially stage management. (The last point is a general career rule. Your life is in their hands more often than you realise it. Do what you can to make sure they want to see you get through the evening in one piece.) Once the dust settles a few days later it’s also a good idea to send a message of thanks to everyone involved – via the company manager is usually the best way of making sure it gets passed on.

If the crisis hits early on – during the first couple of shows, or even during rehearsals – you may be asked to sing from the side of the stage while the principal, or an assistant director, walks and mimes the role. This will typically happen if the directorial team feel that the covers haven’t had enough rehearsal time to work safely on the set, so don’t take it as any comment on your ability or state of preparedness. Watch the conductor closely (under these circumstances there’s no excuse not to) and, especially if it’s a performance or public dress rehearsal, make sure you’re appropriately dressed – smart plain black is good since it’s not too distracting.

Hard as it is amid all the excitement, try to be sensitive to the fact that you’re there because of someone else’s misfortune, especially if it’s illness or injury, and you may well now be working with some close friends of theirs. Even if it’s all gone miraculously well and is potentially a major breakthrough for you, it’s best not to get too outwardly jubilant until you get home.

Climbing the Ladder

As I said at the beginning, your ultimate goal, whether you like it or not, is to do such a good job of covering that at some point soon afterwards you’re not the cover any more. That doesn’t really require you to get to go on – if you’ve jumped through all the hoops and done a good job without upsetting anyone, the management will be pleased that their decision to employ you has proved a good one.

If you do get to go on, and you perform wonders and receive rave reviews, don’t be too downhearted if overnight fame and fortune doesn’t immediately follow. The business moves slowly and it can take months or even years for the impact of a sudden success to work its way through the pipes, but rest assured that your good work won’t have gone unnoticed. In the meantime, be patient and keep making sure that the work you do today is as good or better than the work you did yesterday.

On the other hand you may reach a point where a company is so pleased with your performance as a cover that they want the reassurance of having you there as cover a lot more often, and so you keep getting offered cover contracts, rather than main cast roles. As with all offers, if you keep accepting them, they’ll assume that you’re happy to do the job, and may well keep offering more of the same. So if your ambitions lie elsewhere, at some point you (or your agent) will need to explain politely but clearly that you’ve enjoyed your experiences as a cover, but that you now feel you need to move on. That may mean there’s nothing for you at that company for the time being, which is a hit you’ll have to take. But in the long run polite ambition is a healthy thing for the development of your career and your artistry – just make sure it’s backed up with endeavour, professionalism and end product. Be patient. And when your moment comes, be ready.

** Use an iPad and a score-reading app. Cheap version, buy a torch.


About Paul Carey Jones

Paul Carey Jones is a Welsh opera singer. He should be writing about the current state of the classical music business but might well digress into science, politics, football or cheese. He has recently started a series of irregular posts along the broad theme of "Things they don't teach you at music college." Any suggestions or requests on this theme will be treated with feigned or genuine interest. You can contact him via comments here or at: mail@paulcareyjones.com
This entry was posted in Music, Opera, What they don't teach you at music college. Bookmark the permalink.

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