On the surface, when accepting a cover as part of a contract, you think it's all going to be great. You'll learn it, rehearse it, do a cover run, and then probably not go on. Easy. I've covered before, and gone on too, and I've even written about it, and it's not that simple even if you do get the luxury of rehearsals and a cover run on set. You'll have to deal with not having done it for 2 months for instance.
This was very much not the case yesterday, though. Yesterday, I went on in a show, having had no rehearsals on my cover (I'm singing chorus in said show, and a role in the other main stage production, as well as doing an education opera - the schedule can only accommodate so much), and to make matters scarier still, I was (and still am) ill. Not as ill as the principal, but still ill. When you think of covering, you think 'if they're ill, I'll go on'. You sort of assume you'll obviously be in the form of your life and it'll be wonderful. But actually, if you're in the show anyway, a company bug may grip you both, and it's just a question of who is at what stage of the illness. As a matter of fact, on this occasion, 3 days earlier my own cover was on standby. Never assume anything.
So I got the call after breakfast and immediately life was put on hold. So much for my plan to catch up on admin or rest after opening night of Patience. Nope, laptop away, Tosca score out (or, in this case, onscreen), headphones in. OK, so this is happening. It very quickly turns out that my bedroom isn't the ideal place to get into the right frame of mind, so I leave to set up camp in the theatre. On the tube people turn their heads, as I've got all my scenes looped on a playlist and am inevitably humming along. It's not often you'll hear someone murmuring the baritone interjections in 'Recondita armonia' on the Victoria line (with added coughs). I'm in the theatre by 2pm, go over costume with wardrobe, chat through the blocking with the assistant director, move my portable pharmacy to the principals' dressing room, go shopping, warm up, make nasal rinse, make ginger tea, all the while humming and counting my way through the music. At 3.30pm I get a coaching with the assistant conductor, sing through it, chat about the tempi, the spots where I need to catch the maestro's beat, then I do the tricky chorus scene one more time, and we agree there's nothing more to be done here. It's almost 4pm, so I go to sit in the stalls and watch the set get screwed into place, waiting for what will be my Stage & (no)Piano. I get 20 minutes or so to walk the scenes I've only ever watched a few times, which is fine, we'd talked through it an hour ago and I'd been imagining it, so I'm more or less on top of the geography. People start coming in for the balance call (or as far as I'm concerned - dress rehearsal), I chat to the maestro, who says we'll do what we can in the short time we have with the orchestra, but we may not do all of it because he has to give our leading lady some time - it's her first show (the role is double-cast and this is show number 2). Everyone wishes me well and it suddenly seems like my going on for a small role is a big deal. Yikes. Balance call is at 5.20pm and we do a good 2/3 of my stuff, with mistakes aplenty because I've never done it with a conductor before. Right, grab assistant conductor afterwards and dissect said mistakes and get him to show me what I can expect to see from the podium in those bits. Eat soup. Decide against eating soup halfway through. Walk my blocking in the dressing room again. Mime conducting myself through the mistakes from the balance call. 7pm get into costume. 7.25pm go down into the wings. 7.30pm Angelotti is on and this is really happening. 7.45pm or so, first scene is done and I can go up and worry about the tricky bit. 8pm go down and do the tricky bit and the interrogation scene. Suddenly, I'm in the wings and it's over... Or at least it would be, if I didn't now have to go change into my chorus costumes and do all the stuff I normally do ;)
It wasn't perfect. You can't get that in half a day, there's a reason rehearsals take weeks. But I didn't make any of the glaring mistakes from the balance call, nor did I stop, or hesitate after an unsteady entry. The cold, while annoying, wasn't debilitating. I came off feeling like I'd done what was required, and that's a hell of a good feeling. It was the first time I've been nervous in the wings for years, but also the first time in a long time I've been that excited while performing.
Now, time for some quick words advice for covers that came to me as I was lying in bed afterwards:
1. Be able to sing/hum ALL of it. Including other people's lines. This normally comes naturally over the course of rehearsals, but if you don't get to rehearse bit by bit, over and over again, then you need to get there yourself. Knowing it all gives you anchor points in case something goes wrong, it is often more natural than counting if entrances are tricky, and it also means you know the scene and therefore can be present. If you can't sing the whole thing on your own (your part, the orchestra and other singers in between), then you'll be a lot more worried out there.
2. Learn to conduct it, or watch the conductor if you can. Rehearsing with piano is one thing, but the orchestra sounds nothing like it. Standing on stage it also sounds nothing like the recordings. If you can spend some time watching a monitor with the conductor in stage & orchestras or shows, rather than watching the stage, you'll be glad you did. Fewer things will catch you by surprise.
3. Watch from the wings (or from behind in a rehearsal room), not from the stalls. It's good to see it from the stage's perspective at least once or twice.
4. Once you're on, that's it, there's only one way it can go, so stop thinking. Mistakes are ok, just move on. And know that everyone around you up there, and in the pit and wings, will help you in any way they can.
5. Don't imagine you'll always be on top form when you go on ;) 'That's not how the Force works', so be mentally prepared for it, otherwise a cold can add an extra bit of stress that you definitely won't need.
PS I'm sure a lot of my ETO colleagues, who did all they could to support me last night, will be reading this, and to all of you - Thank You!
PPS Covering is easy if the leading man gives you a good luck card with all your blocking drawn on it ;)