A drama for L.A. Opera

Times Staff Writer

Talk about plans being up in the air.

It was Wednesday, about 6:15 p.m., a few short days before Saturday's opening performance of Los Angeles Opera's "Concert for Poetry & Passion" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and less than an hour before that evening's rehearsal.

The last-minute replacement for the star tenor was on a plane from Paris -- by the best estimate of the opera's director of operations, Edgar Baitzel, somewhere over Chicago.

As Los Angeles Opera has discovered during the past two weeks, it's not easy to find a substitute for Placido Domingo.

On Tuesday, opera officials announced that Domingo, superstar tenor and company artistic director, was suffering from a severe bronchial infection and would be replaced in performances Saturday through Jan. 19 by Roberto Alagna, an ascendant young lyric tenor often referred to as "The Fourth Tenor."

It was the company's second stroke of bad luck for these dates: The opera originally planned to present a concert version of Luciano Berio's new orchestration of Monteverdi's "The Coronation of Poppea," but that opera was canceled when the Italian composer became too ill to complete the score in time.

The company scrambled to find a replacement concert using the artists already booked for "Poppea" -- including Domingo and Frederica von Stade -- and a program that would fulfill the promise to present a Berio composition. The new concert includes Berio's 1966 re-orchestration of Monteverdi's "The Battle Between Tancredi and Clorinda," along with Acts 3 and 4 of Massenet's "Werther" and Act 4 of Verdi's "Otello."

And this was the third in a trio of misfortunes for the opera company this season: In August, the company canceled November performances of Kirov Opera's "War and Peace" due to financial problems. That production was replaced by another Kirov opera, "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," which ran into its own problems when the 10-day shutdown of West Coast ports prevented the sets, costumes and props from being unloaded in Los Angeles. The boat went on to Tokyo. Costumes had to be flown back to L.A. from Tokyo, and the sets had to be rebuilt from scratch.

But just as opera officials were breathing a sigh of relief over concocting a suitable replacement for "Poppea," Domingo came down with flu symptoms. In mid-December, he performed in a Three Tenors concert in Minneapolis but sang only in the medleys, skipping solo numbers. On Dec. 22, Domingo sang solo in a gala Christmas concert in Moscow, despite his illness.

On Christmas Day, Domingo called Baitzel in Los Angeles from his home in Acapulco; he was still having voice problems but expressed confidence that rest and sunshine would clear them up in time. But the next evening, Baitzel's cell phone rang: Domingo was worse, not better, and would have to cancel.

"A cancellation due to the fact that a singer is ill is embarrassing, but it happens all the time," Baitzel said. "Of course, when you have such a high-profile concert, you can't come up with the usual solutions. If you announce Placido Domingo, you have to come up with something very special."

In the case of a full-length opera, major companies such as L.A. Opera always have an understudy, or "cover," to step into any major role. But for a star-driven concert, it is not standard to have a replacement in the wings, Baitzel said, adding that any substitute for Domingo had to be able to sing the same program. Plus, union regulations require that musicians have the music a certain amount of time in advance -- and after that, it can't be changed.

On Dec. 27, a hoarse Domingo put in a call to his friend Alagna, who had sung "Werther" six years ago but had never sung Act 4 of "Otello." Alagna, at home in Paris, said he didn't think he could do it. But he offered to "think one more day" about it. On Dec. 28, he called to say he'd perform. But he didn't have a visa.

"Placido called me, and because he is a friend I accepted," Alagna said Thursday after his first rehearsal. "But you know we had a big adventure -- problems with visa, passport, everything. But thank God I am here. I hope everything will go smoothly."

The next week and a half represented an international scramble to get a last-minute visa approved for Alagna. The 39-year-old tenor also needed a new passport; his old one had run out of pages on which to stamp the visa. The process was also hampered because many business offices were closed for the holidays.

On Jan. 2, Alagna received his new passport, and the wait began for the visa. On Wednesday morning, he and his manager stood by a fax machine as the visa authorization papers came through. Alagna was in line at the embassy when it opened, got his visa and was on the next plane, which landed in L.A. at about 12 30 a.m. Thursday.

Alagna breezily dismisses the challenge of singing two difficult roles on short notice. "You know, onstage, everything is difficult," says Alagna, who is making his L.A. debut. Meanwhile, it's still correct to bill the concert by its original title, "A Concert of Passion & Poetry: Domingo, Von Stade and Nagano" because Domingo will now conduct Otello; opera principal conductor Kent Nagano will lead the orchestra for the other pieces. Domingo is up to the job, but, Baitzel cracked, "let's hope he doesn't cough or sneeze."

For The Record Los Angeles Times Friday January 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 234 words Type of Material: Correction Opera story -- A Jan. 10 Calendar story on Los Angeles Opera mistakenly said that union regulations require musicians to be given their music a certain length of time in advance of performances. In fact, this is not a matter of union regulation but rather a preference on the part of musicians who want to receive music in time to properly prepare for performance.
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