The handsome tenor pours his heart out in an emotional aria that lays bare the very essence of his soul and calls for his beloved to respond. The tension rises, the orchestra swells in a crescendo, the young man gazes expectantly stage left… and nothing happens. The object of his desire does not appear, and an awkward silence ensues. Even if you do not speak the language of the libretto, you know something is amiss. You have just witnessed one of the big blunders of opera.
Singers miss their entrances or hit a wrong note, costumes rip apart mid-duet, and stage sets crumble. These are all little reminders that opera is a live performance with all the excitement and all the risks that brings. Blunders in the opera are a daily occurrence, and not even the greatest soloists are immune against them. If you are in the live performance business, you will make mistakes regularly and very publicly. The mark of real artists is how they recover from these little and big blunders and how they often manage to turn a little mishap into art.
The missed cue
An opera performance takes complex coordination and meticulous timing. Singers and actors must enter and exit the stage on cue while the orchestra plays live, guided only by the conductor who has only an obstructed view of the action or – in modern days – a small monitor with a live stage feed. Despite the technical crew’s best efforts, it regularly happens that main characters do not appear on time, as in the example we considered above.
In a situation like this, the pressure is on the actors already on stage to cover for their missing colleague and to fill the gap as best they can. If the scene is about to develop into a big romantic duet, the prolonged pause and the drawn-out expectation can serve a dramatic purpose that a skilled performer can use to their advantage. Taking a few small steps towards the entrance point will surely amplify the sense of urgency and yearning. If the scene is more light-hearted and dynamic, chances are that the audience would not even notice the missing cue in all the excitement. Blunder averted!
The wrong note
Opera singers rehearse relentlessly until they have each vocal phrase down. Nevertheless, we are all but human, and mistakes will happen. Missing the high note in an aria or starting a melody line on the wrong note may seem like big blunders in opera, but they are surprisingly common. As with any other on-stage mistake, it is all in the recovery. Professional singers are often mortified at the very thought of their voice failing or sliding off key during a live performance, but the truth is, it is hardly ever as bad as it seems. More importantly, it can make the performance special and stand out in the listeners’ minds. Since most opera-goers are not musicians by craft or training, it is not likely they will identify the mistake, but they will surely remember that special aria that subverted their expectations.
Opera singers can train to avoid musical blunders by sufficient practice and by developing their own voice that feels comfortable. A lot of big blunders on the opera stage come to pass because singers overreached or tried to sound like the new Pavarotti or Kabaivanska instead of cultivating their own vocal style. Instead of that, it pays off to stay true to their unique vocal qualities and get comfortable in their own range and timbre. This approach minimises the chance of singing slip-ups and big blunders considerably.
The mangled line
Operas are often presented in a foreign language – for audiences and singers alike. Singers from all over the world have to tackle centuries-old librettos in archaic Italian, German or French. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but, in reality, audiences hardly follow the text word for word. The best way out of a word-salad situation is for singers to think on their feet, focus on the melody line, and mouth sounds and words that resemble the language of the opera. Chances are you have been in the audience on multiple occasions and listened to melodious gibberish without losing any joy or fascination.
All in all, blunders in opera happen on a daily basis, but most of them do not affect the quality of a performance in any negative way. As in any other live performance art, the connection to the audience and the artists’ knack for improvisation and adaptation are as important as the pre-written and rehearsed parts. Mistakes should not be feared or mocked; they are opportunities to turn the source text into living and unique art that is worthy of sharing and praise. So, next time you’re at the opera, open your eyes and perk up your ears: A blunder or two can make your night even more memorable and fun!