It’s a recruiter’s nightmare: a last-minute and mission critical job opening, a non-negotiable deadline, and just ten qualified temps to choose from — worldwide. It happened at the Metropolitan Opera last week, as the clock ticked toward a live broadcast of Tristan und Isolde to cinemas around the world, with the leading tenor and two understudies calling in sick.
In most other operas, replacement tenors would still be plentiful in a major city like New York. But the role of Tristan calls for an atypical type of tenor voice, plus a level of stamina that’s hard to express to those new to this opera. That’s just to survive the “sing.” An effective performance requires vocal beauty, emotional presence and gravitas. “Ten men in the world can do this — and I know exactly where each guy is right now,” said the Met casting director in an intermission interview.
But thanks to some logistical heroics, the American tenor Robert Dean Smith was in town to introduce a vast, new audience to the Tristan that German audiences have savored for years.
How the Met Went Through Every Tristan in the Western Hemisphere
This Tristan run was intended as the long-awaited pairing of Canadian tenor Ben Heppner with American soprano Deborah Voight’s Isolde. John Mac Master (backup Tristan #1) opened for an ailing Heppner, but not entirely successfully, as he, too, was announced as ill. Gary Lehmann (Backup Tristan #2) got good reviews for the second night, but Voight fled the stage with a stomach ailment during the Act 2 love duet. Janice Baird finished the performance as Isolde after a 15-minute delay. To add injury to illness, Lehman fell into the prompter’s box at the third performance, stopping the show again while doctors checked him over.
Two Weeks. Six Surprise Met Debuts. One Great Case for the Flu Shot.
The jinx wasn't limited to Tristan. In the same fortnight, newly minted National Council Auditions winner Angela Meade made an unscheduled Met debut in Ernani — her very first professional performance on any stage. (The casualty in that case: Sondra Rodvanovsky.) Meanwhile, Ruth Ann Swenson was replaced by Ermonela Jaho as Violetta in La Traviata. The final roster changes: six surprise Met debuts in thirteen days.
Where Have They Been Hiding This Tenor?
In Europe, basically. The American tenor is based in Switzerland. Smith flew on Thursday to New York from Berlin (where he's currently preparing the Berlin Tannhauser), leaving him only Friday to learn the staging. Onstage Saturday, he gave every appearance of knowing the production intimately – though he could be seen reviewing blocking backstage during intermission, and was spared the distraction of backstage interview.
Smith’s voice is youthful and flexible, and his delivery has that combination of dignity and emotional presence that this genre of Wagner roles needs. His poignant singing and expressive face he had me in his corner from the beginning, and his final “Isolde!” had my eyes unexpectedly wet. At this point, Smith gave every impression that he had enough juice left in him, after completing one of opera’s most lengthy and demanding roles under these difficult circumstances, to have sung a Liebestod of his own.
Surely that stamina came in handy on next day’s return flight to Germany to resume the other formidable Wagner tenor role he was already doing.
“It Makes the Love Scenes Interesting”
When the curtain closed on Saturday, Deborah Voight had sung four performances with three Tristans -- none of whom she’d been able to rehearse with, and two of whom she’d never even met. “It makes the love scenes interesting,” she noted during a backstage interview confirming these details. Up close, I was struck with her commanding presence, but it never detracted from the vulnerability that I’ve always enjoyed about her. Based on this Tristan and the Chicago Frau (in which Smith played her husband just a few months ago) and Salome, I agree with the critics who notice that her voice has become brighter recently.
On Friday, March 28, the Met’s “Dream Team” Tristan run came to its scheduled conclusion with the “dream team” of Ben Heppner and Deborah Voight taking the stage together for the first time. Voight had again called in sick for the fifth performance (three days after her broadcast with Robert Dean Smith). So here’s the Cliff’s Notes version of the run:
Performance 1: Deborah Voight and John Mac Master
Performance 2: Deborah Voight (replaced midway with Janice Baird) and Gary Lehman
Performance 3: Deborah Voight and Gary Lehman (who fell into the prompter’s box but completed the performance)
Performance 4: Deborah Voight and Robert Dean Smith
Performance 5: Janice Baird and Ben Heppner
Performance 6: At last! Deborah Voight and Ben Heppner!!!