Exclusive guest blog post for The Opera Stage from international mezzo-soprano Stephanie Weiss.
Many singers in the US are not very familiar with the art of the jump-in, as we don’t have as much opportunity to do this in the US. In my time in Germany, I have become an expert (if one can call it that!) at jumping in, or doing an Einspringer, which I have turned into my German-English (or Denglish) word: Einspringing!
My first Einspringer was at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the house where I was a young artist (or Stipendiatin) through the Opera Foundation. It was my first season there, and they were going on tour to Baden-Baden to perform a concert of the second act of Parsifal and the third act of Die Walküre. One week before the tour, they asked me to be the cover for one of the Blumenmädchen in Parsifal, so I learned it. The night before they were leaving, I got a call from the opera house. I thought they were going to tell me that I was singing in Parsifal. But no, they had a problem and needed someone to sing Gerhilde, one of the Walküren. I had never even heard this music (except for the Bugs Bunny clip), let alone sung it. So, I ran back to get the score before the office closed and raced up to the practice room to bang out my pitches and get it in my voice. I borrowed a recording from someone and listened to it and sang along all night.
The next morning, I had a rehearsal at 11am alone with the coach, with the rest of the girls at 11:30, and then we got on the train at about 1pm to head to Baden-Baden. The next morning, we had rehearsal with Christian Thielemann on the podium. I had never sung with him and was extremely nervous because I had the first entrance in the 3rd Act. It came off without a hitch and I even got a thumbs up! That evening we did the performance which went really well, and I survived my first Einspringer!!!! It was a total adrenaline rush not only to sing this amazing music with the unbelievable Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, but also to have sung this monumental piece having learned it in less than 24 hours. This one was concert version, so there was no staging and I was able to hold my music. The next ones were not so simple!
My next Einspringing adventure was at another opera house, where I was jumping in for the First Lady in Die Zauberflöte. I had sung this role many times, but at each opera house, the dialogue is different. They did the dialogue with almost no cuts and the ladies always interrupt each other. I had one night to learn the dialogue. I got to the rehearsal and they thought because of my name that I was a native German. They quickly learned I was not, but I made it through. There were two lines I could not remember quick enough to cut the others off, so the other two ladies were nice enough to just take them for me. It was an amazing cast and they were so nice and helpful to me by getting me to the right place on the stage and with the dramatic energy. I was so grateful to everyone for being so nice.
Over the years, I have had countless other jumping in experiences. I jumped in for a symphony concert and learned a song cycle overnight. I jumped in for Der Rosenkavalier in two different productions in different cities. In one place, the assistant stage director didn’t know the show and had a hard time telling me when and where to go. Luckily, I knew the show so well that it was not problem. At the other house, they were supposed to have sent me a video to watch in order to learn the staging but the artist office never told me that and it never came. I arrived at the opera house 5 hours before the performance. The assistant director was amazing, knew every detail, and was thrilled to know that I did too. We only had a 45 minute rehearsal. Talk about fast rehearsing!
I also once had heard about a Walküre that was happening at an opera house about an hour away. I was having dinner with some friends, and one said, “Ha, wouldn’t it be awesome if they called you tomorrow to jump in for that?” Well, guess what? They did! It turned out that one year before, I had been called to jump in for three rehearsals of this production because the singer had physically (not vocally) hurt herself and could not walk the staging. So I went and did the rehearsals, and it happened to be with a conductor I had worked with before. The singer recovered from their injury and sang the production. However, in the next run of the production, there were some illnesses in the cast, and I got the call in the morning to sing the show that night.
The greatest jump-in to date for me was for a role that I once covered and never imagined that I would sing again in my lifetime as it is a rarely performed opera. I got a call while I was in the USA to jump in for a show in Germany. I was on the plane 4 hours later and flew over, score in hand! It was amazing to revisit this piece after 8 years of not looking at it. It was a title role, and a big sing. This was definitely the furthest I had ever traveled to ‘spring ein’. It paid off to be only one of 4 people in the entire world who knew the role.
The most important thing about Einspringing is that if you are healthy and have your wits about you, TAKE THEM!!! They can lead to future work. Of the stories I just related, I was rehired at each house for either another jump-in or for a planned engagement. If you do a great job, those companies will keep you in mind for future work!
My advice for Einspringing:
1. Know your capabilities!
Do you have strong nerves? Can you remember a role you sang years ago with barely any notice or rehearsal?
2. Learn your roles well!
That means musically, with regard to language, and ideas of characterization.
When you jump in, you have to adapt quickly to a new interpretation of the score and story. If you are well-prepared and have a clear understanding of your character, it will help you learn the production and deal with the rapid rehearsal process. It is important to be musically exact and well-studied, because you probably won’t meet the conductor until shortly before the show or, sometimes, even only from the stage the second you open your mouth to sing!
3. Be flexible!!
You will be getting quickly on a plane or train, and running into a rehearsal and to the costume fitting and then to makeup very quickly. Go with the flow!
4. Stay calm!
In the midst of unexpected travel, lack of familiarity with the house, and last minute minimal rehearsal, you have to stay calm! It will be a crazy day and you have to keep your concentration to sing well.
5. Make sure you eat!
This sounds silly, but you will be running all over the place and might forget to eat! Make sure you eat something to keep up your energy!
6. Have fun!
You are probably singing one of your favorite or most well-practiced roles, so have fun with it!
Stephanie Weiss is a mezzo-soprano based in Tempe, AZ and Berlin, Germany. She is an Assistant Professor of Voice at Arizona State University and a free-lance singer. This season she will sing Grimgerde in Die Walküre with Oper Leipzig, as well as the world premieres of new song cycles by Daron Hagen and Jonathan Stark. In addition, she is on the voice faculties of the summer programs AIMS in Graz (Austria) and COSI in Sulmona (Italy).