Sing a famed Puccini aria, murder a police chief, jump to her death off the Castel Sant’Angelo. As the title role in Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera, soprano Jennifer Rowley had quite a night.
But as the curtain came down on Rowley’s one scheduled January 12 performance, another opera heroine awaited her: Leonora of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Rehearsals for the latter started the next morning; Rowley did not expect to sing either role until a series of cast shifts.
Hired initially as a cover for both roles, Rowley learned over the summer she would get one performance of Tosca of her own while standing by for Sonya Yoncheva, who had just been announced to step in for Kristine Opolais. However, she did not get the luxury of months’ notice for Il Trovatore.
Following her final rehearsal for Tosca, Rowley received a call from Peter Gelb’s office as she left Lincoln Center. The general manager asked how she’d feel about taking over in Il Trovatore; the first performance was in less than twelve days. She was in, provided she could get through her night of Tosca before heading into rehearsals.
Rowley sang the Tosca two days later, and the next morning, she was in a Met rehearsal studio learning the staging for Il Trovatore, which runs through February 15. Sunday (her day off) was spent moving her living room furniture and walking through the blocking. Four stage rehearsals later, Rowley stepped into the spotlight, having finished the transition from Puccini to Verdi.
Though both operas are in Italian, the contrasting styles could cause both the singer and listener vocal whiplash.
“The writing is so different, so it did take a couple of days to transition into the Verdi frame of mind,” Rowley says. “Trovatore is very bel canto—there’s a lot of coloratura—and that’s not in Tosca at all. I had to transition my thought process and how the throat was positioned.”
Rowley is no stranger to going on as a cover. In fact, she’s made a bit of a career out of it at the Met and beyond, including a one-rehearsal turnaround at Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in Katonah, New York in 2010 and stepping into the Met’s Cyrano de Bergerac last year. She’ll cover Yoncheva once more this season in Luisa Miller (though not scheduled to go on for any performances—yet).
Unlike on Broadway, where understudies may not rehearse (or even be hired) before the official opening night, opera covers are expected to know the role before the first rehearsal. At the Met, they typically work with a coach within a couple days to review the role and observe rehearsals (the timing of the latter depends on the production; newer productions tend to let the principals explore the roles before inviting covers).
Just as Broadway understudies get put-in rehearsals during the show’s run to rehearse the show onstage, so do covers. Opera singers, however, get this time before performances start. “It’s really like a second cast situation; the covers are basically staging the whole show together as if they were their own cast,” says Rowley.
Once a production goes up, Met covers are instructed to be within 20 minutes of the house during performances (in the house if the performance is broadcast). Some stay in the greenroom, some head to a movie across the street; others might be fortunate enough to live nearby.
Whether it’s with months’ notice or minutes’ (as was the case for Le Nozze di Figaro cover Trevor Scheunemann earlier this season), awaiting the call can be stressful. But the opportunity to learn a role through the guidance of an opera company is unmatched. “It’s a wonderful job, especially for young singers coming up in the business,” Rowley explains. “You’re getting coached by some of the best in the world, and then you’re working with incredible stage directors.”
The soprano finds that an emphasis on character exploration is key to staying grounded in the moment, regardless of how quickly she’s thrown onstage: “When the pressure is really high, it helps to focus my mind and tell this story. That’s what we’re doing: we’re telling a story with our voice.”
Both the Met’s Tosca and Il Trovatore come from director David McVicar. As the former was a new production, Rowley had the chance to work with him directly. For the latter, she rehearsed with stage director Daniel Rigazzi and immediately insisted on learning McVicar’s perception of Leonora and his original intentions for the production. Pieces of physical staging once cut for other singers were back in, with Rowley falling to the floor and climbing gates.
Understanding McVicar’s Leonora allowed Rowley to marry her own characterization with his vision: “I wanted to take what David wanted and then inject my Leonora into it.” Rowley has performed the role before in other stagings and approaches Leonora with the idea of Shakespeare’s Juliet, embracing the youthful resoluteness and bravery that drives her to commit the ultimate sacrifice for her lover Manrico.
McVicar, according to Rowley, thought of Leonora similarly. Rigazzi guided her to add more colors and textures to the role, pushing her to fuel Leonora’s first aria “Tacea la notte placida” with passionate memories that speak to the history of their romance.
That may not come through to the audience directly, but it does allow Rowley that focus on character she craves. “If I can keep my mind wrapped around that, then the pressure doesn’t sneak in; I can keep it out for the moment.”
“Then of course, after the curtain call, I just crash. It does make your brain tired.”
For tickets and more information for Il Trovatore, playing now through February 15, click here.