Ever since a 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein replaced New York Philharmonic's ailing maestro Bruno Walter in 1943 on scant hours' notice -- thus setting the course of Bernstein's life forever -- artists have tested their mettle by being parachuted into high-stakes roles at the 11th hour.
Winnipeg's opera community was abuzz last week with news that two of its own have just marked their own career breakthroughs -- under similar circumstances.
Lyric soprano Andriana Chuchman received notice she was to portray the role of Adina in Metropolitan Opera's production of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore in New York this month, replacing Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who was down with the flu.
Already set to make her official Met debut in late February in Baroque fantasy The Enchanted Island, the gifted singer, 31, says she was floored -- literally -- after getting a telephone call from the opera's director, Bartlett Sher, saying she would be thrust onstage in the lead role for the first two performances slated for Jan. 9 and 13.
"I could barely stand. I was almost crouching on the ground," she says with a laugh during a phone interview from New York City. "To be informed that you're going on for one of the leading opera superstars in the world at the Metropolitan Opera -- I was in total shock."
Luckily, Chuchman had already been covering (understudying) Netrebko, so she felt well prepared to face the footlights. Having a luxurious 48 hours notice also helped quell any nerves she might have felt.
"There was no fear at all. I was really excited to get onto that stage again after doing the final dress rehearsal. I was full of excitement and adrenalin. There were no nerves of 'I can't do this,' but nerves of, 'I can't wait to do this,'" she says.
Winnipeg-based theatre/opera director Ann Hodges was in the audience opening night. She had directed the singer during Manitoba Opera's 2005 production of the same show -- Chuchman's first professional role -- and coached her at the University of Manitoba's faculty of music where Chuchman studied with colouratura soprano Tracy Dahl during the early 2000s.
"She knocked it out of the park," Hodges says. "Andriana was amazing and gave a completely confident, playful and electrifying performance. She absolutely owned the stage and there was no sense of Adina being anyone's role other than hers."
She recalls the roaring crowd leaping to its feet for the rising star: "The whole audience knew they were witnessing something really special in this new singer on her debut."
Even the often-crusty New York Times was charmed. Impressed by Chuchman's "irresistibly lively way with words," it noted her ability to spin "long, lyrical phrases" with "glittering little tumbles of notes."
Manitoba Opera's general director/CEO Larry Desrochers has watched Chuchman's artistry grow since she last appeared locally in its 2011 production of Mozart's The Magic Flute.
"First of all, it couldn't happen to a nicer person. Andriana is such a lovely young woman, and a great colleague and artist. It's just fantastic this is happening and thousands of people will see her, including producers from all over the world who attend Met productions," he says.
As Chuchman prepares for her next opera -- including a role debut as Miranda -- opening Feb. 26, Chuchman feels life on the stage can only get easier.
"I think I proved that I can take on a lot of pressure. If (this last) opening night didn't freak me out, I don't think anything will."
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Winnipeg-based composer Neil Weisensel received the nod from Vancouver Opera in early December that he would be composing music for its newly commissioned production of Stickboy based on award-wining spoken-word poet Shane Koyczan's libretto.
The new anti-bullying opera premieres next October at the Vancouver Playhouse, as part of Vancouver Opera's regular 2014-15 series. It's a big deal for the musician who moved back to Winnipeg in September 2012, to be closer to family after spending 16 years away in Vancouver.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," Weisensel says during an interview of the notable commission. " It means I'm now in the big leagues."
The 48-year old is replacing Vancouver composer Jordan Nobles, who bowed out for personal reasons. Weisensel, who penned his first chamber opera in 1991, already has a solid track record behind him with six operas: Gisela in her Bathtub, City Workers in Love, The Bachelor Farmers of the Apocalypse, Merry Christmas Stephen Leacock, The Master's Stroke and Secret Service under his belt. The musician says his prior experience as VO's Young Artists' Ensemble music director in 1996 and delivering pre-show chats also helped ease the transition and he is comfortably gearing up for the intensive creative process that will result in an 80-minute contemporary opera completed by mid-August.
"I was already on the radar. I was a known entity," says the musician, who also co-directs Winnipeg's popular World Village Gospel Choir, founded two years ago with his wife Rachel Landrecht.
Following its world première, an abridged version of Stickboy will eventually tour schools and community venues as part of the Vancouver Opera In Schools program. Weisensel is hopeful it will also cross over the Rocky Mountains to his home city.
"I would love to see it in Winnipeg. That would be amazing."
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Also in opera news: The Little Opera Company presents A Viennese Valentine, featuring excerpts from Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow, on Feb. 15 at the First Unitarian Universalist Church at 7:30 p.m. For further information, see littleopera.ca