An opera singer who is unable to sing created a crisis for Opera Colorado, sending its production of “Die tote Stadt,” set to open Saturday night, topsy-turvy.
But a phone call to Cincinnati, a hasty plane ride, a full-court press of rehearsals and the show will go with not one, but two sopranos — one acting on stage and one in the orchestra pit singing the arias.
Apparently, it’s not as odd as it sounds.
The saga began early this month when Sara Gartland, the soprano in town to sing the lead in the opera, found herself sleeping poorly with a sore throat, which she attributed to acid reflux.
Garland went to see Dr. David Opperman at the Colorado Voice Clinic. “I really thought he would say yes, there was some redness on the vocal folds and, you know, maybe prescribe me some medicine for that and then we’d be on our way.”
The likely culprit was a mild case of COVID-19 Gartland had in August. “My speech therapist, Kate Emmerich, told me that the virus can kind of go in and it’ll settle and then over time, it starts to affect the area so it’s not like it happens overnight,” Gartland said.
She was put on a course of the anti-inflammatory prednisone and began speech therapy with the hopes of curing the condition in six to eight weeks, though she has been warned by other singers it could take longer.
This was bad news for Opera Colorado, which is mounting a brand-new production of Erich Korngold’s rarely performed, though highly regarded, “De tote Stadt,” with new sets and costumes.
The story is of a man mourning the death of his wife and obsessed with a woman who is her dead ringer. Gartland was singing the dual roles of Marie and Marietta.
“It’s like Hitchcock wrote the opera,” Robert Perdziola, the costume and set designer, said in a web interview, with a nod toward Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film “Vertigo,” which also dealt with mourning, obsession and an apparent look-alike.
The opera runs Feb. 25 and 28 and March 3 and 5 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.
The challenge for Opera Colorado was not just finding another soprano, but one who knew the score of “Die tote Stadt.” Greg Carpenter, Ellie Caulkins’ general and artistic director, put out a call on Feb. 7 to Kara Shay Thomson, in Cincinnati, who was out celebrating her birthday.
The next morning, she saw the voicemail asking if she knew the opera. “I pulled it off my shelf and thought, ‘well, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen that one.’”
Thomson was on a plane at 4 p.m. and at rehearsal in Denver at 7 p.m. Since then, there have been cast rehearsals and private coaching with a pianist and the company music director and conductor Ari Pelto.
Thomson has done this before. The big opera companies, like the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the San Francisco Opera, have “covers” to fill in for the major roles.
“But with regional companies, it’s just not cost effective to bring in a whole second cast,” she said. So, pinch-hitter singers are the answer. The problem with finding a singer to step up to the plate on “Die tote Stadt” is that it is rarely performed. “There are very few people who know it, have ever seen it or even own the score,” she said.
Thomson had first sung the German opera as a cover for the New York City Opera and then in a full production that was 13 years ago.
“It encompasses all the things that a soprano, especially a dramatic soprano can do,” Thomson said. “It has large jumps in octaves and tense and also the tessitura sits above the staff for quite a bit,” leaving the soprano singing in her highest range.
Thomson will be standing on a platform rising out of the orchestra pit, about chest high and tweaking the balance between the two has been one of the challenges. “As a vocalist I am never going to win over the orchestra,” she said.
Another problem is that Thomson will be singing outside of the action on the stage without any spatial relation or the physical cues that usually guide her singing and will have to rely on Pelto for those prompts. “He is my savior,” she said.
Thomson will get her chance to be on stage in May as the vengeful Princess Turandot in Opera Colorado’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot.” But it’s the orchestra pit for now.
Meanwhile, Gartland will be on stage acting out the story, without even lip-synching, which she has been warned could aggravate her condition.
Thomson’s vocal emotion and her vocal phrasing and what she’s feeling, Gartland said, will help inform her stage acting.
“I’m a mime,” Gartland said. “It’s devastating for me because there’s nothing more that I want to do than sing it and act at the same time.”
Still, Gartland said, “I feel like I have this opportunity to emotionally and energetically be so much more present for my colleagues on the stage.” Instead of focusing on her singing she said she is actively listening to everything they say and do. “I am learning so much.”
There are still bits to work out. At the technical rehearsal at the Ellie Caulkins Tuesday night there was a point after a song where Maria kisses the mourning Paul, played by Jonathan Burton.
“I was feeling it dramatically and I went to kiss John and Kara Shay was still singing the high note and I started giggling, because, of course, like she was feeling so good singing the high note and I was ready dramatically to move on,” Gartland said.
“Next time I will definitely wait for her to cut off before I kiss the tenor, so we don’t get giggles all over the theater.”