Backstage at San Francisco Opera > June 2012 > She Has Got it Covered
She Has Got it Covered
"You're on!": two of the most thrilling and nerve-wracking words you will ever hear in the English language as a cover (or understudy). In my opinion, covering can be compared with thrill-seeking sports like bungee or base jumping. You must be prepared at a moment's notice to go onstage and perform. During this summer season at San Francisco Opera, I am covering two VERY different roles: Madame Mao from John Adams' Nixon in China and The Queen of the Night from Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Many singers starting out are given the priviledge of learning roles or covering, whether as young or professional artists. Many of the big names in opera had careers launched from covering. I am lucky enough to have a family member that has been singing and covering with the Metropolitan Opera for 23 years. Many times, my aunt, mezzo-soprano Wendy White, sat in the green room during performances and all went according to plan (sigh of relief). Then there were the times when she had to go on. One year, my aunt received a phone call that the woman singing Brangäne from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde was ill and Wendy was going to have to sing. Did I mention it was opening night? My own experience was during my second year as an Adler Fellow with San Francisco, I received a phone call from MarinVenturi, the head of the Rehearsal Department, saying that I was "in role" for rehearsal. For the next few weeks, I sang with Sonia Prina, David Daniels, and yes, Susan Graham. Talk about exciting, especially when Miss Graham compliments your ornaments. Personally, I learned so much from that experience and grew as an artist. Covering tests your mettle and all your musical/non-musical abilities. [Above: Susannah with her aunt, Wendy White.]

San Francisco is one of the best opera houses in the world and as such, certain kinds of protocol are put in place. Once the opera is up on its "feet" or teched, we proceed to the final dress, which is considered a performance. The rehearsal department calls each performer and checks to make sure they are okay for the day's performance. Those are called Wellness Calls. If the artist you are covering isn't well, then you, as the cover, are put on alert. It might be the night you get to set foot on that stage and make some magic! Also, don't go very far from the War Memorial Opera House. Covers need to be 5 minutes away. My husband Austin Kness and I were very lucky as Adlers that our apartment was literally, right across the street and we could cover from home. [Above: Performing at the 2010 Adler Gala Concert; photo by Cory Weaver.]

As a self and family proclaimed fashionista, my favorite part...costumes! Several weeks before the show even opens we are scheduled for fittings. I feel like a child opening Christmas presents on the day of a fitting. The costumes for The Queen of the Night are pretty fabulous, and very complicated. There is a hoop skirt, quilted bodice and skirt, sequined petticoat, and wild headpiece, which are all handmade by the master craftsmen and women of the Costume Department. It looks splendid and weighs a ton. [Right: Costume fitting as The Queen of the Night.]

Finally, my other favorite part of the cover process, getting to do the cover staging. We have sat in weeks of rehearsals watching our colleagues and now is our chance to get on our feet. With the help of the Assistant Stage Director and Maestro, we are both musically and physically, inhabiting our roles. During our Nixon in China cover staging, we had musical rehearsals along with our staging. It was invaluable to sing through the difficult score with my colleagues and Maestro Joe Marcheso. Putting the music with the staging becomes even more difficult. You may have the score memorized, but once you are on your feet, it all goes out the window and you start at square one. That is why once you have a role "in your body" it sticks with you forever.

I am and will be forever grateful to the San Francisco Opera for the opportunities I have had performing and covering as an Adler Fellow and now, a professional artist. These preparations of roles and moments of on-your-feet brilliance become defining to any artist.

Posted: 6/18/2012 2:42:37 PM by Susannah Biller (Soprano)
Filed under: 2011-12Season, NixonInChina, themagicflute


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Backstage at San Francisco Opera is a fascinating, fast-moving, mysterious and sacred space for the Company’s singers, musicians, dancers, technicians and production crews. Musical and staging rehearsals are on-going, scenery is loaded in and taken out, lighting cues are set, costumes and wigs are moved around and everything is made ready to receive the audience. From the principal singers, chorus and orchestra musicians to the creative teams for each opera, in addition to the many talented folks who don’t take a bow on stage, this blog offers unique insight, both thought-provoking and light-hearted, into the life backstage at San Francisco Opera.

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