Understudy shines in two roles at Opera Theatre | St. Louis Public Radio

Understudy shines in two roles at Opera Theatre

Jun 8, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Tenor Michael Hayes stepped on short notice into two roles Friday night at Opera Theatre -- as the sensitive lover Luigi in Puccini’s "Il tabarro" and as the jealous husband Canio in Leoncavallo’s "I Pagliacci."

He displayed remarkable vocal and dramatic gifts, tightening up the paired Italian tragic operas that opened last Saturday night.

Before the overture, Timothy O’Leary, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis general director, announced to the near capacity audience at the Loretto-Hilton Center that tenor Robert Brubaker, who sang the roles in the double bill last Saturday, was unable to go on. He sang both roles again Wednesday, the double bill’s second scheduled performance.

Often in opera, when the singer has vocal impairments, he or she goes on stage and acts the role while the understudy, or cover, sings from the orchestra pit. It's awkward, but after a few minutes, the audience suspends belief, and the show goes on.

Not Hayes. In a real tour de force Friday night Hayes, in costumes, took to the stage with moves and timing down. He sang magnificently in the two starkly different roles.

He has sung Canio twice before -- in Knoxville Opera and Boston’s Chorus Pro Musica -- but those performances were in the original Italian. OTSL performances are inEnglish. . He's a speed-of-light study. He had the English words down pat.

OTSL staff said Brubaker had been suffering from inflamed vocal cords for about ten days. They were likely aggravated by allergies pumped up by days of rain. Brubaker had marked -- not sung out -- at the double bill’s final dress rehearsal last week to spare his vocal cords.  On opening night, the tenor’s voice was unable to support his excellent reputation, although his acting was fine. His voice improved on the double bill's second night Wednesday, several respected sources told us.

Friday the whole cast seemed more settled in since opening night, but still full of creative energy. Tim Mix, the fool Tonio, singing with Hayes, seemed freer than on opening night. Emily Pulley as the wife Giorgetta in “Il tabarro” shone in her intimate love duet with Hayes.

Kelly Kaduce -- Nedda, Canio’s wife in the second opera -- also was superb in her singing and acting with Hayes. Kaduce and Hayes had sung together at OTSL in 2009 in Strauss’s “Salome.” He sang King Herod and she was Salome.

The audience gave Hayes sustained applause after his first aria in “Il tabarro” and a standing ovation at the evening’s end. When he leapt onto stage after “Pagliacci,” the last singer to take a bow, many in the cast, broke tradition, and applauded.

“We were prepared,” O’Leary said. 

Hayes had come for a few rehearsals and for Wednesday’s performance and seamlessly followed the timing and dramatic intensity director Ron Daniels had worked out with Brubaker over a month of rehearsals.

The triumph was no star-is-born evening. Hayes is a respected dramatic tenor who has sung with scores of opera companies and symphonies in this country and in France and on Broadway. At the intermission several in the St. Louis audience warmly recalled Hayes's singing here as King Herod and other work of his reaching as far back as his company debut in 1997.

Five more performances remain of the double bill with its final staging June 29. It’s next scheduled for Thursday and the following Sunday. Depending on medical advice, with more than a week of voice rest by either date, Brubaker may be able to resume the role.

In either case, the brilliant and moving double bill is in very fine voice.