Keith Cerny
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We've Got You Covered

General Director & CEO Keith Cerny reports on how The Dallas Opera ensures that a full complement of singers is always ready, willing, and able to perform—whatever the circumstances.

published Sunday, April 5, 2015

Photo: Karen Almond
Keith Cerny, General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera


Dallas — It’s an old adage in show business that “the show must go on.” A sold-out house for one of TDO’s opera performances can represent more than $200,000 in ticket revenue, and a performance can only take place if we have a full complement of singers. One of the tasks that regularly demands my attention, and that of the artistic team, is making sure that we have a complete cast ready to sing at each performance, by having a fully developed “cover strategy” for each production. (In opera, a ‘cover’ is a singer who can step in at a moment’s notice to replace the regularly engaged singer, if he or she is unable to perform). The importance of having a reliable backup plan came to light recently during our run of Puccini’s La bohème; one of our lead singers woke up the morning of a performance feeling too sick to perform. This situation came as much as a surprise to him as it did to us, as he had felt fine the night before. Fortunately, we were able to bring in a singer from New York to sing his starring role on short notice. The new singer was already rehearsing another opera at the Metropolitan Opera at the time, and the Met graciously gave him a release to perform with us in Dallas. Even so, we had only 11 hours from the time we discovered the need for a replacement singer until the curtain went up that evening. Talk about having to move fast!

In an ideal, and resource-rich, world, TDO would have a cover in place for every role in every performance, from major principal roles down to the smallest “bit parts.” Covering all roles in this way would be extremely expensive, however; and few companies can afford this approach. Opera companies with extensive young artist programs can create a “win-win” situation where young artists perform secondary roles on stage with the company as part of the planned casting, while learning the larger roles to perform in the event of emergency. This approach has an added benefit: the performers are already local, and can observe rehearsals regularly; they can even have their costumes fitted and be ready to go, should the need arise. TDO’s young artist program provides opportunities for one or two singers each year, but this program is not of sufficient scale to be a major part of our cover strategy. There are some excellent singers here in North Texas, and across the state, who provide us with alternatives in time of need. However, there are far fewer singers available within driving distance of the opera house than if we were based in New York or London. As a result, TDO needs to import singers from other parts of the U.S. to cover critical roles, especially at short notice. We are greatly helped, though, in that Dallas is reasonably close to New York (relative to a West coast opera company, for example), enabling us to bring performers here in a matter of hours, if need be.

In deciding how comprehensively to cover a particular opera production, we consider three types of opera:

  • Popular classics: For a popular classic such as Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Bizet’s Carmen, and Puccini’s top three operas (Bohème, Tosca, Butterfly), there is always a ready talent pool in major U.S. cities. While exceptional talent is always rare, and must usually be booked at least a few years in advance, there are usually several experienced singers at any given time who can perform a major role with limited preparation in these familiar works. Sometimes, too, we get lucky and a major artist can be released to sing in Dallas during another opera company’s rehearsal period, or between performances in another city. Or, if TDO is performing operas in repertory (i.e. two or more operas at the same time), we can occasionally pull in a singer from one cast on short notice to replace an ailing artist in the other
  • Neglected gems: For less-common works such as Korngold’s Die tote Stadt and Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, their rarity makes them very exciting for the company to program, but it also means that the talent pool for replacements is much scarcer. We may have to look to Europe to find artists who can sing these roles, which makes the logistics of getting the artist to and from Dallas far more demanding; overseas artists also often require special visas, which take lead time to secure. Occasionally, we pay a singer a fee to learn an obscure role, even if he or she is not physically present in Dallas during the rehearsal period—just in case
  • World premieres and contemporary opera: A world premiere requires the most fully developed plan for covers, since no one else knows the role from a previous performance. Recently, we hired a full complement of covers for TDO’s January world premiere of Joby Talbot’s and Gene Scheer’s highly successful new opera Everest. For contemporary work, especially revivals of 21st century operas, previous productions at other major opera companies are reliable sources of potential cast members and covers. As described in a previous “Off The Cuff,” workshops can also be a good source of covers for the premiere production, since it is rare to be able to bring the complete premiere cast together for the preparatory workshop

When we contract with covers, we take three general types of approaches, while bearing in mind that every situation is different:

  • On-site: In this approach, we hire a cover to be on-site in Dallas for at least part of the rehearsal and all of the performance period, ready to step in on a few hours’ notice. This approach is the most expensive, of course, but gives the cover the chance to observe staging and musical rehearsals, and possibly even the chance to participate from time to time in actual rehearsals. It also gives us plenty of time to have a costume ready, just in case
  • Remote cover: In this approach, we engage a cover who already knows the role, and who has the scheduling flexibility to step in on short notice. Depending on the cover’s physical location, we may need to bring him or her to Dallas the night before the performance to ensure that they can arrive in time, but we are greatly helped, as noted above, by the fact you can get to and from Dallas from almost all of the major population centers in the U.S. in under 4 hours
  • Gleam in the eye: Even if we have not formally engaged a cover, TDO’s artistic team always has a role-specific contingency list of singers to call on short notice if required, and we will have confirmed each singer’s general availability during that time frame in advance of an actual need

In opera, as in many aspects of life, there are two types of risk: the expected, and the unexpected. For singers, some of the expected risks include: the onset of flu season, which increases the likelihood that a singer will fall sick; pollen season, which can cause inflammation of the vocal cords or larynx requiring medical treatment; and general fatigue from the rehearsal process. Then, there are the unexpected risks. In my own career, I have seen singers sprain ankles, hurt their backs, break one or more teeth (the intensity of the singing voice can cause teeth to crack), suffer various family and medical emergencies, suddenly lose their artistic confidence, and even develop vocal trouble in the course of the run—a situation in which their vocal technique that has served them well in the past is suddenly no longer secure. In the opera world, singers are paid per performance, and only when they actually perform, so they are highly motivated to perform if they can. From time to time, though, they have no choice but to withdraw from one or more performances.

But whether the singer is unable to perform due to an expected, or unexpected, risk, at the end of the day it makes no difference. A replacement must be found! So, if it becomes clear that a singer cannot perform, we implement one of the cover strategies described earlier. For on-site covers, it is very easy, and we simply let the cover know officially that they are “on” for a particular performance. Sometimes providing a couple of days’ notice is a good thing, but there is a school of thought that says half a day’s notice is better because it gives the artist less time to build up anxiety. For a remote cover, we need to physically get her or him to Dallas by plane or car, and likely schedule a costume fitting, stage walkthrough, meeting with the conductor, and—with luck—a short musical rehearsal.

All bets are off, for a “gleam in the eye” cover, depending on the particular circumstances, but if it is clear we need to bring a singer to Dallas, we work through our prepared list of replacement ideas. One tool at our disposal is a global database which allows us to search all the artists who have a sung a particular role, going back years. We can also research where a desired replacement singer is rehearsing or performing at the moment (or taking a break between productions), before contacting his or her manager to check availability and begin quickly negotiating a contract.

In this third category, singers often have to jump in on extremely short notice to help an opera company that is stuck without a performer for a key role. In my experience, performers generally look favorably on this type of “rescue” mission—so long as they know the part well enough to feel really confident on stage. They understand that opera audiences will be rooting for them, and even critics generally acknowledge how demanding it is to step into a role on a few hours’ notice, and are willing to make certain allowances.

In conclusion, opera is a form of live theater, and any live theater experience is unpredictable. Careful advance planning makes it easier to ensure that roles and singers are matched for every performance, whether the originally programmed artist or a backup, thereby reducing stress for the General Director and the entire artistic team. Above all, our goal at The Dallas Opera is to make these transitions as seamless, and unobtrusive to the audience, as possible, while ensuring that the replacement is fully prepared to sing, and act, the part. Challenging?  You bet!  And, as I like to say around the office, “There’s never a dull day in the opera business!”


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in Below is a list of previous columns:

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We've Got You Covered
General Director & CEO Keith Cerny reports on how The Dallas Opera ensures that a full complement of singers is always ready, willing, and able to perform—whatever the circumstances.
by Keith Cerny

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