NEW YORK - At this rate, the surgeon general could issue a warning that singing at the Metropolitan Opera can be hazardous to one's health.
Illnesses have knocked out stars at dizzying speed, with six singers making unscheduled debuts in leading roles over 13 days.
Three tenors appeared as Tristan, one of whom stopped the show when a set malfunction sent him tumbling into the prompter's box. A soprano took over Isolde in mid-performance, and two other sopranos were thrust into Verdi operas on short notice.
Some singers spend years waiting a chance to sing on the Met's stage, working their way up at regional theaters with the hope they can become the next Luciano Pavarotti or Birgit Nilsson. Various viruses have catapulted those waiting in the wings into the spotlight, usually with not even a single stage rehearsal.
Angela Meade, a 30-year-old soprano still in vocal school, hadn't sung a single professional performance before her debut Friday night as Elvira in Verdi's "Ernani."
A little more than 16 hours later, tenor Robert Dean Smith sang Tristan in a performance simulcast to theaters worldwide. He jetted in from Berlin on Thursday, had a few piano rehearsals Friday and planned to head back to Europe on Sunday. Even Met General Manager Peter Gelb joked that the revival of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde" was "cursed."
The string of substitute Tristans may end. Ben Heppner, who had been set to star alongside Deborah Voigt in this highly anticipated revival, planned to fly to New York on Sunday night and intends to sing Tuesday and Friday, according to his manager, Bill Guerri. Heppner missed the first four performances because of a blood-borne infection that abscessed in his pelvic region.
Both weekend debuts were warmly received. There's a distinguished list of singers who made unscheduled Met debuts because of illnesses, including by Placido Domingo, Astrid Varnay, Roberta Peters, Cornell MacNeil, Renee Fleming and Salvatore Licitra.
A winner of the 2007 Met National Council Auditions, Meade replaced Sondra Radvanovsky (viral infection) in "Ernani," which before this revival had not been performed at the Met since 1985.
"I was a little nervous the first 15 minutes," Meade said.
No wonder. She enters for the first time to sing her cavatina "Ernani! Ernani, involami," filled with coloratura trills.
Meade, a student at Philadelphia's Academy of Vocal Arts, showed a vibrant voice with nice color and an assured technique. She sang like an old pro from start to finish, combining for moving duets with Marcello Giordani (Ernani) — she happens to share the same voice teacher as Giordani, Bill Schuman.
Smith, 52, is a far more accomplished singer, gaining international attention when he filled in for Peter Seiffert as Walther von Stolzing in "Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg" at the 1997 Bayreuth Festival. He is the Tristan of choice at Bayreuth these days.
A former baritone, Smith carefully navigated the most difficult of all tenor roles, saving vocal energy for the third-act monologue. Alongside Voigt's huge soprano, his tenor was drowned out a bit during the thickest orchestrations, but he sang with beauty and style throughout, and he benefited from music director James Levine, who adjusts constantly to performers' preferences.
Smith hadn't been on the set before Saturday.
"You count on your experience to get you through," he said.
Born in Kansas and a resident of Switzerland, Smith has performed predominantly in Europe and had been scheduled to make his Met debut in Strauss' "Die Frau ohne Schatten" in December 2009. The Met called Smith on March 14 and asked him to take over for the telecast, and the Staatsoper unter den Linden in Berlin released him from "Tannhaueser" rehearsals, allowing him to fly to New York.
John Mac Master, the original understudy, received negative reviews in the March 10 opener, and Gary Lehman sang the following two performances, emerging following his tumble on March 18 to finish after doctors checked him out.
When Voigt left the stage on March 14 in the second act with a stomach ailment, Janice Baird came in from the bullpen for her Met debut. Then on March 15, soprano Ruth Ann Swenson came down with the flu and was replaced by Ermonela Jaho as Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata."
On Saturday, the only glitch was when the night sky turned white for several seconds in the second act.
With his family in his dressing room, Smith was happy he had made the trip.
"Mr. Gelb took a risk. Mr. Levine took a risk," he said. "And I took a risk."