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Curse of the Phantom? Illnesses haunt the Met.

Angela Meade replaced Sondra Radvanovsky as Elvira in 'Ernani.' Angela Meade replaced Sondra Radvanovsky as Elvira in "Ernani." (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera via AP)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ronald Blum
Associated Press / March 24, 2008

NEW YORK - At this rate, the surgeon general could issue a warning that singing at the Metropolitan Opera can be hazardous to one's health.

Illnesses have knocked out stars at dizzying speed, with six singers making unscheduled debuts in leading roles over 13 days.

Three tenors appeared as Tristan, one of whom stopped the show when a set malfunction sent him tumbling into the prompter's box. A soprano took over Isolde in mid-performance, and two other sopranos were thrust into Verdi operas on short notice.

Some singers spend years waiting for a chance to sing on the Met's stage, working their way up at regional theaters with the hope they can become the next Luciano Pavarotti or Birgit Nilsson. Now various viruses have catapulted those waiting in the wings into the spotlight, usually with not even a single stage rehearsal.

Angela Meade, a 30-year-old soprano still in vocal school, hadn't sung one professional performance before her debut Friday night as Elvira in Verdi's "Ernani." A little more than 16 hours later, tenor Robert Dean Smith sang Tristan in a performance simulcast to theaters worldwide. He jetted in from Berlin on Thursday, had a few piano rehearsals Friday and planned to head back to Europe yesterday. Even Met general manager Peter Gelb joked that the revival of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" was "cursed." But both debuts were warmly received.

Over the years, there's been a distinguished list of singers who made unscheduled Met debuts because of illnesses, including Placido Domingo, Astrid Varnay, Roberta Peters, Cornell MacNeil, Renee Fleming, and Salvatore Licitra.

Meade replaced Sondra Radvanovsky (viral infection) in "Ernani," which before this revival had not been performed at the Met since 1985. "I was a little nervous the first 15 minutes," Meade said.

A student at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, Meade showed a vibrant voice with nice color and an assured technique. She sang like an old pro from start to finish, combining for moving duets with Marcello Giordani (Ernani) - with whom she shares voice teacher Bill Schuman.

Smith, 52, is more accomplished, gaining international attention when he filled in for Peter Seiffert as Walther von Stolzing in "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" at the 1997 Bayreuth Festival. He is the Tristan of choice at Bayreuth these days.

Smith saved his vocal energy for the third-act monologue. Alongside Deborah Voigt's huge soprano, his tenor was drowned out a bit during the thickest orchestrations, but he sang with beauty and style - even though he hadn't been on the set before Saturday.

"You count on your experience to get you through," he said.

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