They say, “the show must go on!” and opera is no different. So, what does an opera company do when their lead performer falls ill before a performance and cannot sing? They call the understudy. An understudy is a performer who has prepared the same role, is familiar with the production, and is able to step in at a moments notice. The understudy acts as a safeguard to ensure that performances will not be cancelled, rescheduled or refunded.
But, most of the time the principle completes all of the performances without instance or interruption. So, the understudy is someone who was hired to not perform a role. This might lead us to think less of the understudy, to imagine them sitting in rehearsal without a care in the world since, “I probably won’t need to know this anyway.” However, I would like to share a few thoughts that I hope will cause us to appreciate understudies more.
- Priority during rehearsals is (understandably) given to the principles. An understudy typically does not rehearse with the conductor, director, or orchestra as much as the principle, if at all. Yet, they must learn the same music, staging, and conductor cues, to the same level as the principle. They are of course required to attend all of the rehearsals and take comprehensive notes so that they can rehearse all of these things on their own.
- Understudies have to consider whether or not to list those roles on their resumès, and if they do, how to communicate that they were an understudy. Some might not consider it legitimate experience since they may not have actually been performed the role. Yet, the preparation for the understudy is too significant to simply disregard. So, understudies may list those roles on their resumes but with the clarification that they were cast as an understudy.
- Top billing in programs and marketing materials is (again, understandably) given to the principles. The names of understudies are usually designated by an asterisk*, (parentheses), or as a footnote†. The understudy performer does not receive the same beneficial publicity.
I share these thoughts not to complain, or condemn; the fact is that this is the way things are in the opera world and it is not likely to change. In fact, if it were not for understudy roles then many young singers would not get the chance to sing in a professional opera production. There have been many instances when an understudy has stepped in at the last minute and the success of that first performance propelled their career to new heights.
I have had understudies on the brain recently because I have been cast as the understudy for the role of Marcello in the Loveland Opera Theatre production of La Bohème. This is really a great opportunity for me as an understudy because I will get to perform in Family Matinee performances on February 16th and 23rd. These performances will be shortened (lasting about 90 minutes), narrated, educational performances with orchestra and the understudy cast. Check out the events page for more info!