There is news this week that a new opera about the 1980s pop duo Milli Vanilli is in the works. Milli Vanilli gained notoriety when it was revealed that they had not sung in their own live performances, instead lip-synching to the performance of session singers. Indeed in a knowing coda to their own career the pop pair made an ironic commercial for a chewing gum, which involved miming to an operatic performance of Rossini's The Italian Girl In Algiers that's playing on a record in the background.
Clearly, miming to another singer is nothing new in performance. Why should it bother us though? The very reason that we get involved in the performing arts industry at all is to do with the buzz of live performance. It's a performing situation in which the directness of a performance is its unique, unrepeatable quality. It's dangerous, thrilling - and things can go wrong.
We have probably all been to a performance in which an announcement explains that a singer has succumbed to illness and cannot sing; that an understudy or some other replacement will be taking the role. On occasion this can mean the indisposed original walking their role in the production as it is staged while the covering singer performs from the side of the stage or from the orchestral pit.
Though this can be disappointing, it's an accepted issue in live lyric theatre. It also means that there is plenty of opportunity for the prepared singer to step up and make themselves known. Indeed, this week Anna Netrebko was forced to withdraw from the opening night of The Metropolitan Opera's L'Elisir d'Amore; her understudy, Adriana Churchman grasped the opportunity with elán:
The star then was Anna Netrebko, who was scheduled to sing Adina again, until the company announced this week that she was ill with the flu and would miss at least the first two performances.
Her cover, the Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, stepped up and had an assured, sparkling success in her Met debut.Equally, in today's theatre, there is all manner of technological innovation. Puppetry to depict characters (Complicité's productions for ENO), film or animation inserts (The Opera Group's American Lulu, The Sunken Garden (below), Two Boys or Lucrezia Borgia at ENO) or actors duplicting characters (the Royal Opera's Eugene Onegin, ENO's Turandot) is diversifying that direct connection between the singing performer and how they are apprehended in the staging of the production.
This is worth bearing in mind when auditioning. Auditions are always more than a panel trying to find a singer for a single role. A panel want to meet someone who seems assured in their own performing. They're also looking for someone capable of working with the production team. By this I don't mean aesthetically - a professional doesn't have to agree with a director or a concept. Rather a performer should demonstrate assurance in their own job so that a director can feel secure in getting on with theirs, knowing they can rely on the performer to do the job for which they're hired. An audition may be a place to show a diversity of skills but it is certainly the place to demonstrate bankable competence in that one skill for which the audition was called in the first place: singing.
If a company knows it has a rigorously professional singer - well prepared, in command of their voice - then they can begin to think creatively about using that performer. They can extrapolate the potential of that performer to other media. They can imagine that the singer may be secure enough to cover a colleague in the event of a contingency. They might even begin to imagine using that singer in a future production that has yet to be organised. There's plenty to be gained beyond the one role!