The Metropolitan Opera’s new strategy of plugging sudden holes in its casts with big names has its beneficiaries.
The emergency performers come off like cavalry to the rescue and incidentally collect big extra fees: sometimes more than $13,000 a performance. The Met gets a nice dose of publicity for the opera behind the opera. And the audience, the house contends, benefits from hearing the great artists of the times.
“Where possible we should have star singers sing in all performances,” said Peter Gelb, the house’s general manager. “The public is not interested in someone not singing. They want to hear the stars.”
But there is one loser, and that is the poor “cover” singer, as understudies are called in the opera house. These are the solid journeymen who stay on the island of Manhattan no more than 15 or 20 minutes away during a performance in case a singer becomes sick. In the past at the Met, a sudden illness could mean the chance for one of these unheralded performers to have a moment in the sun, to absorb some applause and perhaps help jump-start a career.
The new policy came clear this week after several high-wire tenor substitutions. According to the original schedule, Roberto Alagna was supposed to sing the role of Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” on Monday. Marco Berti was to sing the role of Radames in Verdi’s “Aida” on Tuesday.
Mr. Berti fell ill. So Mr. Alagna was shifted to Radames, and Marcello Giordani, another high-profile tenor who has been singing Edgardo in “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the house, agreed at the last minute to step in as Pinkerton. Mr. Giordani did the same on Oct. 6, taking on a last-minute Roméo in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” when the tenor Joseph Kaiser became ill.
Raúl Melo lost out both times, as Pinkerton and Roméo. Mr. Melo, who lives in Brooklyn and has had a respectable 14-year career singing in major European opera houses, has been covering roles regularly at the Met for the last three seasons. He has gone on only once, as the Duke in Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” And he was sick himself that night to boot.
He sounded philosophical about his recent misses. It was nothing personal, he said, just business. “This is my job,” he said. “It’s part of the deal.” As for Mr. Giordani, Mr. Melo said: “He’s doing what he has to do to move his career forward. I’m doing what I have to do because I signed a contract.”
Mr. Melo declined to specify his fee, but being passed over for Mr. Giordani meant a loss of decent income. He said principal covers generally earn $1,500 to $3,000 at the Met per performance, but their fee goes up to $5,000 to $8,000 if they appear. Mr. Gelb declined to confirm the figures or say what the cover system costs. Assuming that average cover costs for a performance are $4,000, the total could be close to $1 million a season, if not more.
It is a bit frustrating, Mr. Melo said, that despite his accomplishments, he is not perceived as a star. The reasons are “basically, luck, timing and press agents,” he said.
“If I knew what to do,” he added, “I’d do it. I’m a player.”
But the bottom line is that the Met considers him good enough for its stage. “You’re on the roster,” he said. “We’re in alphabetical order with everybody else.”
In an interview, Mr. Giordani said he felt sorry for Mr. Melo. “But what can I do?” he added. “It’s business.” He pointed out that patrons are paying hundreds of dollars to hear big names. “You have to have respect for the audience,” he said.
He slipped right into the role of Pinkerton, having sung it 13 times last season in the same production, although a stage director stood in the wings reminding him of movements.
In an interview, Mr. Alagna said he had been a cover before and also understood Mr. Melo’s disappointment, but he pointed out that sometimes a lesser-known singer can hurt his career by performing poorly as a fill-in. Mr. Alagna, smiling, then brought up the Gospel story of Jesus’ anointment with expensive perfume, when Judas Iscariot objected that the money should be used for the poor. Jesus replied that the poor would always exist but that he would not always be there.
“You will never have me forever,” Mr. Alagna said. “Better to have me now.”
Mr. Alagna was asked to sing Radames on Monday, right before undergoing a root canal. The first thing he did was check with Mr. Giordani to make sure he would take on Pinkerton. If the job went to a lesser singer, he said, he would be blamed.
On Tuesday, he said, he sat in his favorite spot in Central Park, within view of his wife, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu, from their suite at the Essex House on Central Park South. There he studied the score and meditated. Two hours before the curtain, an assistant director showed him pictures of the production and described his movements.
The performance was well received, and Mr. Alagna said it “exorcised the ghost” of a highly publicized event last year, when he was booed at the Teatro Alla Scala while singing Radames and walked off stage. He was later banned from the house by management. The incident added pressure, he said, because a poor performance at the Met would have confirmed the negative opinion.
“After what happened at La Scala, Peter showed his confidence in me,” he said.
Mr. Gelb said his change in policy did not mean that lesser-known singers would not have a chance at the Met. He said he had made efforts to bring in young, promising performers for several performances of a run.
What has changed, he said, is the default position of giving a cover the job of filling in for a sick principal, and the previous practice of letting a cover sing one performance, with the big-name performer taking on the cover role for that night. He pointed out that a number of major European opera houses do not even use the cover system but scramble to find replacements as needed and are sometimes even forced to cancel a performance.
There is a bottom line to all this. When Mr. Alagna was announced as Tuesday’s Radames, the house sold out that day, Mr. Gelb said. The extra take was $20,000.
And covers still get a chance at the Met. Late yesterday the house announced that Maria Gavrilova, the cover, would step in for an ailing Patricia Racette in “Madama Butterfly” last night.