Conductor does double duty as tenor loses voice
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Desperate times led to a remarkable solution in Verdi's "Aida" at the Benedum Center last night: The conductor stepped in to sing for an ailing tenor.
That would be amazing enough, except that Antony Walker, the Pittsburgh Opera's music director, didn't leave the podium. In a rare occurrence indeed in the opera world, Mr. Walker conducted and sang the role of Radames in the final act of the opera while the tenor acted the role on stage.
"I trained as a singer for seven years and sometimes it comes in handy," Mr. Walker said after the performance. "I never had to sing and conduct before and I hope I never have to do it again!"
Yesterday, tenor Vladimir Kuzmenko, cast as Radames, came down with the same bug that has sidelined mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe. Pittsburgh Opera management yesterday decided to fly in a tenor to sing the role if Mr. Kuzmenko couldn't make it through the performance. But Eduardo Villa's flight was delayed and Mr. Kuzmenko lost his voice by the end of the third of four acts.
Panic? No. Not when you have a tenor in the pit. Christopher Hahn, the Opera's artistic director, knocked on Mr. Walker's door and said, "Can you do it"?
"Act 4 is light and lyrical; It was feasible;" said Mr. Walker, who already had been steeling himself for the possibility. "It was the only way we could continue the opera."
"When I heard it announced, I thought it was an April Fools' joke," said Beth Parker, an Opera staff member.
Mr. Walker sang the intimate action in which Radames and Aida -- played by soprano Eszter Sumegi -- are entombed, while Mr. Kuzmenko acted on stage.
"I had a lovely duet with the sopranos," said Mr. Walker. "A conductor and a singer often communicate. It actually wasn't so difficult. We know each other quite well."
Singing is not new to Mr. Walker. In addition to studying voice and singing in recitals, he sings in rehearsals.
"I often sing in orchestra rehearsals because it gives the orchestra an idea of the work," he said. "I have sung every note of 'Aida.' I do that with every opera I prepare. I find you can empathize with the singers better."
But singing in rehearsal is different than the real thing.
"Conducting and singing are essentially two contradictory things, with singing you have to feel it in the body but conducting is upper body and brings that breath up. I had to conduct lower than I typically do, to support a column of air."
He asked for a microphone to help him since he faces away from the audience, but that was eventually turned down.
"It was surprisingly seamless," said Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dance and music critic Jane Vranish. "He blended well with the women. He did not lose any of his conducting skills in the process."
The audience ate it up, giving him the largest ovation of all.
"The show must go on," said Mr. Walker, who said he did enjoy the challenge. "The audience was so appreciative of everything that went on and supportive of us trying to do it."
It's just not something he would recommend anyone, even himself, doing again.
First Published April 2, 2008 12:36 am