Audiences are familiar with the theater story line of the young understudy having to be rushed on stage to fill in for the ailing diva in many theater and movie scripts. In these scenarios the understudy, with little to no rehearsal, saves the day and in so doing becomes the next big star. But does every understudy have a 42nd street moment? What does it really mean to be an understudy or cover in the world of Broadway and Opera?
My current job at “Das Phantom der Oper” at Theater Neue Flora in Hamburg is as a Carlotta cover. This is my first cross over job into the world of Broadway as an opera singer, and I immediately noticed differences between what is expected from a cover in a musical theater production and what is expected from a cover in opera. Since a lot of young singers start off their careers as covers/understudies, and many audience members don’t get to hear an insider’s take on the process, I thought it would be an interesting topic to explore. To get points of views from both sides, I interviewed two of my colleagues from, “Das Phantom der Oper,” Linda Veenhuizen and Valerie Link, and opera singers Virginia Grasso, and Jennifer Check.
Linda Veenhuizen (Madame Giry cover/Ensemble – The Phantom of the Opera):
In the four years that I have lived in Germany, I have been part of two musical theater productions, “Tanz der Vampire” and “Phantom of the Opera.” In both shows I was part of the ensemble and covered a supporting role. In the few years that I was in “Tanz der Vampire,” I had the privilege to play my cover quite often. In musical theater in Germany every leading role has two covers. These covers, when they are not on in their leading or supporting role, are not just sitting on the coach doing nothing, they perform in the ensemble. The rule is that there always should be “one cover in the house.” This rule is there so that if one of the leading roles would, say, break his or her leg during the show, there is someone in the theater who can jump in immediately, so that the show can go on.
Even though I would like the opportunity at some point to be “first cast,” I like being a cover who is in the ensemble and has the chance to play one of the leads once in a while. Every time I am on as one of the leads it’s fresh and exciting. I also like the feeling of being in the ensemble where you are part of a group, where together you create an atmosphere. The downside of being a cover is that it takes longer to really get into the role, because you normally don’t get a rehearsal period of 6 weeks, like the first cast, for your role. Normally, you just go through the scenes on the rehearsal stage one or two times, do a work-through on stage, and hopefully a put-in (a show without an audience) before you go on for your premier. It is also a bit scary, because you have to “find the character” with an audience present. My rehearsals for these two shows were different, because one show was already up and running, and the other show was a new production. In the show that I came into as a new cast member, the creative team repeatedly said we should first concentrate on our ensemble parts and after the premier we would rehearse for our cover parts. In the other show that was a new production, it happened that people had to go on for their cover part earlier than planned, because the first cast got sick. These cast members had to go on, with one quick day of rehearsal. As covers, we got to watch the first cast rehearse, so you learn the blocking from that, but still for me there is a huge difference between seeing other people do it, and doing it yourself. Of course I prepare my role intensively, do all the homework, but I can rehearse all I want in my living room, the feeling on stage is not the same as in my living room, because for me acting is reacting, so I need the other people there.
I must say that in my opinion audiences do not need to be disappointed when a cover plays one of the leading characters. In my experience it makes little (or no) difference. I think casting a show is a big puzzle, all the pieces have to fit, and a lot of times giving someone a cover and not a lead has nothing to do with lack of talent. I have worked with a lot of very talented people; leads, covers, people in the ensemble and swings.
I think everything has its upsides and its downsides. As a lead you always have to be careful and take care you don’t get sick, as a cover you have the responsibility to be prepared and know that you can go on unexpectedly, and you need nerves of steal to go on in front of the audience and try to be your best.
Valerie Link (Christine Daaé – The Phantom of the Opera):
I’ve had every experience in my career so far; I was a cover, I was alternate and I was/am first cast, every position has of course its advantages...
First I want to say, that we can always be very proud, it doesn’t matter which part we got, what matters is that we were chosen out of hundreds of people to play that part, and are able to make many people happy.
When you are a cover, you don’t have the pressure and the responsibility every night, eight times a week. You also have at least two parts in the show, which means that you have a little bit of a variety, and that it is always a very special thing when you play the cover part.
The disadvantages are that you normally don’t get that much rehearsal time, and time to develop the part. You have to go on stage, even when you don’t feel ready. Then of course you don’t have the regularity of playing the role. Sometimes you have really long breaks in between your shows, but you always have the same amount of responsibility as the first cast.
I think as a cover you should play at least twice a month to feel secure, and to have a good feeling when you have to jump in...that was my experience when I was a cover, that I couldn’t really enjoy being on stage when the break in between was too long.
Divas In Waiting
In contrast to covers in musical theater, covers in opera are rarely in the ensemble unless they are young artists in a young artist program where they have the opportunity to cover a role while they sing in the opera chorus.
Covering in opera means arriving at the theater prepared to sing a role and watching the principals rehearse. As a cover you may never get the opportunity to go on stage, but on the off chance that you may get that opportunity (especially at a great career making house like the Met) singers commit to that period of time as a cover in which you can't accept other, more visible jobs. It's about being ready to go onstage without ever having had an actual stage rehearsal. Although at some opera houses, covers are able to negotiate in their contracts for guaranteed performances.
Saving the day at the opera house can make careers, and opera lovers love watching and rooting for the underdog. Will they be the next Met superstar? Of course, some covers in major opera houses might not be well known to the audience and feel pressure to live up to the famous singer they are replacing.
Virginia Grasso (Soprano/Voice Teacher):
I have covered the role of Norma with the Geneva Opera (June Anderson) The San Francisco Opera (Carol Vaness) and also the Washington Opera (Hasmik Papian.) Unlike most of my colleagues, I loved covering. It's like a paid vacation and an incredible learning experience in one. It gives a singer time to really absorb the role without the pressure of performing. You can get so many ideas when you are observing another singer rehearse a role. It's a time to explore what works and what doesn't. You have to be able to put your ego aside and take it all in.
Jennifer Check (Soprano):
Covering at the Metropolitan Opera is basically the best place to cover. You actually get rehearsal time with a cover cast and have your own set of costumes. Often you get a run through of the opera, and the artistic staff will often come and watch it to see how it goes. The downside is that you are always on display and there is a lot of pressure. In the last few years, covers have gone on, but it's not always the case. Sometimes depending on the role, the administration will bring in a well known star.
At Covent Garden, I was the only cover who was actually guaranteed to go on if something happened to the woman that I was covering, so I only got a limited number of rehearsals. They had a rehearsal cover for Elektra so that I could rehearse my scenes, but no other roles were covered. I suppose they had plans to fly people in or they had people based in the UK to go on if needed.
In Spain, it was a completely different story. I was covering a title role and I had to do the bulk of the rehearsals. There was one performance where the woman I was covering got sick. They called me in the afternoon and told me that there was a real chance that I would go on. I basically had to run in and they rigged a costume for me and had to find a wig for me to wear. Once performance time came the first cast did end up going on and fainted in the middle of an aria. I was sent on stage and finished the performance.
When covering at opera houses it is important to make sure that your contracts are absolutely written in stone and that there is no wiggle room. Terms vary from house to house, and as a performer you want to make sure that you are getting fairly compensated for the work that you are doing. Other things are that you are always responsible for are your housing, and often you lose money on the flights because they don't pay enough of a fee to cover the crazy cost of airline travel.
One of the best covering experiences I had was in Philadelphia when I covered Norma. They were great because they had known me from the very beginning of my career and were so happy when I went on for the performance that the Norma canceled. I had some rehearsal with the conductor but had never really done all of the staging. I had to watch every rehearsal, so I was sort of prepared, but getting it on your feet is completely different than just watching. That performance was a success and it lead to me getting my first staged performances of Norma the following year. The company music and artistic director were in the audience and they had just heard me sing parts of the role before I went on. It was on about 15 minutes notice and they were cutting the hem of my dress as the orchestra was tuning! The staff pianist was gracious enough to stand in the stage left wing and prompt me just in case because it happened so fast. It was a thrill because my best friend is the chorus master there and so many of my friends from school and from working in Philadelphia while in school were on stage with me sending me incredibly positive energy and getting me through the performance. I will never forget that day ever!
Seeing Both Sides
I have been a cover twice. I covered the role of Norina in Don Pasquale at Opera New Jersey, where I was a young artist. As a young artist, I sat in on rehearsals of the first cast, and I was also part of the opera chorus. I was also fortunate enough to be able to sing Norina’s aria from the opera with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in their summer concert series when the first cast soprano was unavailable. It was an amazing experience. In some ways, because I was covering as a young artist my experience was similar to my experience here at Phantom where I am also part of the ensemble.
Juggling the duties of ensemble and covering a lead role from my young artist days helped me prepare for my job at Phantom, though to be honest I didn’t really know what to expect crossing over into Musical Theater. I wasn’t sure how the rehearsal process would differ, and what would be expected of me. As with Opera New Jersey, I had my ensemble rehearsals and I sat in on the first cast rehearsals. As an added bonus, because as a cast we were ahead of schedule with our rehearsals, a few of us, myself included, were able to rehearse with the creative team. Most times this does not happen, so I was very grateful for that opportunity and to be able to perform for the creative team and share some of the ideas that I had on the role.
In musical theater there is a week before the premiere called “Previews.” During this week, the show is still working out a few kinks or technical things, but it gives the show a chance to “get on it’s feet” in front of an audience. Right before our preview week, we had the great honor and surprise of having the original director and Broadway legend, Harold Prince, come to work with us and attend our last rehearsal before previews.
On the day where we were performing the show for Harold Prince, the first cast Carlotta unfortunately had to call in sick, so I had to jump in for the run of the show. I came into work at 1pm, because we were all taking a photo with Hal Prince on stage, and was immediately called over by my cast mates to Mr. Prince who said, "I hear you are jumping in today as Carlotta, how very 42nd street." To which I replied, "Yes, I only hope it has the same outcome." which made him laugh.
The afternoon was spent rushing me in and out of costumes (since mine were not all finished) and running every scene with the cast that I would be put into, because I had not gone through every scene so I didn't know the blocking. Then I had about an hour break before I had to do the whole show, with orchestra, for...you guessed it the whole creative team and Hal Prince.
I have to say the whole day, even in hindsight, was a bit surreal. First off, I was surprised by how emotional it was because I have literally never felt more love and support on stage. Every single one of my cast mates was routing for me, the backstage crew was asking if I needed anything, and thanking me for being so calm, and the creative team was so supportive. I was nervous of course, but tried to just focus on what I needed to do.
When I came on stage for the curtain call everyone cheered. I got hugs from the entire cast, the entire creative team, and Hal Prince came on stage, hugged me, kissed me on both cheeks! I swear, it was like a scene in a movie. I then ended up going on during some of the preview performances. It is an experience I will never forget.
Yes, it is true that understudies and covers are on standby, to be used in emergency situations because as they say in theater, “the show must go on,” but in addition to filling in when a first cast member is sick or on vacation, they often add energy and fresh air to a production.
Being a cover can also be a great opportunity to an artist, offering them the chance to learn and perform roles while working on, learning, or performing other roles. Even though you might not be cast as the “star” of the show, doesn’t mean you can’t let your star shine through!
Information on the artists that contributed to the blog: