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The amazing true story of a Canadian soprano's last-minute debut at the Met

Editorial Staff

By Matthew Parsons

On opening night of the Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, their star soprano Lucy Crowe lost her voice. So, the Met called up her understudy (her “cover,” as they’re often called), the Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin. Asselin has a respectable resume for an emerging artist, though much of the Met audience may not have ever heard her voice. But that Friday night, she went on in Crowe’s place in the crowd-pleasing role of Adele, the feisty chambermaid. She sang her heart out, and she curtain called to rapturous applause and ecstatic reviews.

That quick summary might sound like a twinkly, fairydust Cinderella story, but the reality is way more interesting. We caught up with Asselin by phone from Central Park in Manhattan, a few days after that opening night. The story of her surprise success at the Met is no fairytale: it’s a masterclass in no-nonsense professionalism.

I want to hear the whole story, but first off could you give me a bit of context: what exactly is the role of a cover in an opera production?

The role of a cover is synonymous with being an understudy. So, you’re there just in case the main cast … anything happens to them. Either they get sick, or a family emergency takes them away, or they literally break a leg — any of the above, you’re there just in case. Or to fill in at rehearsals for them if they have a conflict in their schedule. Often, especially with very busy, very famous singers, they’re not necessarily around for the whole rehearsal period because they’re flying in from Madrid or some other place. So, you’re there literally on call as a substitute for the main cast.

What kind of preparation is involved?

The preparation is essentially identical to being hired as a principal artist. You learn the part, you memorize it, you coach it to within an inch of its life to make sure that everything’s as perfect as possible — especially as a cover at some place like the Met, you want to make sure the best foot’s forward. So, there isn’t very much in terms of preparation that’s different from being hired as a principal artist.

How many roles have you covered for before?

I have done a fair bit of it because I was a young artist at the Canadian Opera Company for a few years, and one of the duties in these young artist programs is to serve as a cover. So, I’d say I’ve probably covered about a dozen times, at this point.

And have you ever had to go onstage?

No, this is my very first time having to go onstage for a cover contract! I’ve had to do rehearsals before, but never a performance. It’s very rare actually.

All right, so take me back to Friday. What were you doing when you got the call?

Well, luckily I did receive a bit of a heads-up on Thursday night that the principal singer had lost her voice after the dress rehearsal and that she was on medication and … hopefully going to sing opening, but she wasn’t sure. So, they gave me a bit of an advance warning not to go out to the clubs and do anything too crazy on Thursday night [laughs], and to wait by my phone. And, I was supposed to hear around noon, one way or another, but 1:30 came and went and I still hadn’t heard anything. So, I checked in, and I was told that it looked like [Crowe] was actually going to do the performance. She was feeling better but she was going to check in with a doctor one more time to confirm. So I’d actually let my guard down because I thought "Oh, she’s fine. Great. No problem!" [Laughs]

And I was just walking home from picking up some groceries and my phone rang and it was the Met, and they said, "Hey! We’ve got good news! You’re on!" And at that point, it felt like anything but good news. It felt like terrifying, no-good, terrible news. But, after the initial terror and shock of it wore off, it became exciting very quickly. And, your preparation is very thorough [as a cover], especially in a place like the Met. They really provide the resources to their cover cast to make sure that you’re properly rehearsed and comfortable. So, it didn’t feel as scary as if I had been called up from some totally unrelated project to go on.

When you hang up the phone after that call, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?

Well, the very first thing that went through my mind was "Call your parents immediately!" Luckily, they were able to miraculously come and make it to the performance from Ottawa on Friday. And then the next thought is "What do I need to do between now and curtain to make sure that I’m ready?" So, you know, I made sure I had some bananas and watermelon and little snacks that I could bring in. And, you know, I had all sorts of singers’ potions and lozenges and things in my bag and I just headed into work and started warming up and getting into the right headspace.

What sort of preparation had you done to get a sense of what the production was like — like with blocking and props and things like that?

Well, I started my contract here at the very same time as everyone else, so I’ve been watching rehearsals since day one. Not every single rehearsal, because you have to give people space to do their own work, but every other day you’ll pop in and watch and see what the progress is. And every single rehearsal that’s on the stage, that they do in costume and on the set — all of the covers and the understudies are out in the house, watching and paying attention to all the notes that are given [to the cast by the director], and any changes in dialogue. That was one of the things that was the most nerve-wracking — that they were deleting and editing dialogue right up until opening night, so you really have to keep on top of what all those little changes are.

Before the performance, did you talk to anybody backstage, or did you just take that time to get into the zone?

I did talk to a few people, mainly the wonderful music staff at the Met. There’s a handful of pianists who work as coaches for each show, and there’s also a prompter — and this isn’t something that exists at every opera house, but it’s a tradition at the Met and at a lot of larger houses — the prompter is a pianist and a conductor who literally hangs out in this little box that’s kind of embedded at the front of the stage, so you can see their little head and their little hands poking out from this box at the lip of the stage, right in front of where the pit and the actual conductor are. And the prompter’s there to whisper lines if you forget them, or give you cue words at the beginning of a phrase to make sure you know where you are. And they’re also conducting. They have a little monitor of what the actual maestro is conducting, and they’re mirroring that for you in a closer frame of your vision. We have this wonderful prompter, Donna, who has just been a doll, and she was so supportive and made sure I knew everything I needed to know in terms of cues or tempo differences and things like that.

I imagine a role debut at the most prestigious opera house on the continent is going to be stressful at the best of times. Do you think that the fact that you went on as a cover means there was more pressure or less?

There’s a little bit of both. There’s definitely the added pressure as a cover that all eyes are on you to see how you rise to the occasion. But on the flipside, everyone loves an underdog [laughs]. So, you really do feel like people are there rooting for you and wishing the best for you, and any little triumph that you have just feels even more magnified.

What were the highlights of the actual performance for you?

There were a couple of really fun moments because [in Die Fledermaus] a lot of characters come in only for Act 2. There’s a smaller contingent of people for Act 1. The logistics at an opera house are that if you don’t have to come onstage for an hour and a half into the piece, then you’re not expected at the theatre until right when curtain is happening. You can come at 7:30 and get into your wig and makeup and then be on for Act 2. So, a lot of my castmates, I didn’t see until the show was already started and I went onstage.

And Susan Graham, who’s this mezzo I’ve idolized ever since I was a little girl — fantastic singer — she was singing Prince Orlofsky. And, the first time we crossed paths onstage she just kind of came over and gave my arm a little squeeze and gave me a wink. It was just this little moment of saying "I’m really happy for you!" That’s a really special memory.

Did anybody come up to you backstage after the show?

A million people! So, there are understudies for every single role in this opera. Usually, during a show, we’re all sitting in the green room, which is a nice little kind of lounge area with cozy couches and a big TV screen so you can watch the show backstage. We all sit there together and bring treats and watch the show. So, the most special thing was having this mob of my fellow understudies kind of tackle me right as I came offstage in a big group hug. We had a champagne toast together backstage after.

How appropriate. Do you read reviews of your work?

I try not to, usually. So, I didn’t seek out any reviews after opening because I was just so happy and I didn’t want to even go there. But, I had such an army of friends and family and supporters who were so excited for me that my phone just started exploding with people tagging me in posts and stuff online, and I did end up reading the reviews that came out on Saturday after the show and was just really thrilled. You can’t ask for more: that it goes well and people like it and that you haven’t ruined the show for all of those people who paid all this money to go to the opera, and that you’ve sort of given them their money’s worth.

I don’t really have a sense of what kind of impact these sorts of surprise success stories can have on a singer’s career. Do you?

It’s really going to have to be a wait-and-see sort of situation. There are all sorts of stories of people whose careers were launched by stepping in like this because it’s the best kind of audition. The people who do the hiring get to see you actually perform on their stage, and that’s a really wonderful opportunity. But I can’t really venture a guess at this point if it will have any fundamental change on anything. I’m just really glad that I have this memory that I can call up at will, and just keep doing what I do. Just keep working hard.

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