Supporting roles, and stars on deck l-r: Rihab Chaieb (Mercédès) and Eliana Pretorian (Frasquita) in Carmen, Glyndebourne Festival, 2015. Photo: Robert Workman.

Supporting roles, and stars on deck

Jenna Simeonov

Like the person who keeps an eye on the extras in their favourite TV shows, operaphiles like to look twice at the supporting roles on the operatic stage. It can be a perfect window into the way opera gets cast, and how artists advance their careers.

There are singers like Luciano Pavarotti, Monterrat Caballé, and Renata Scotto, whose professional debuts were as Rodolfo, Mimì, and Violetta, respectively. Clearly, this is not the usual career trajectory; even Maria Callas started off in supporting roles (much to the envy of her leading castmates). For opera singers, starting “at the bottom” is the only way to work towards title roles.

Bizet’s Carmen is actually a great show to see this kind of thing in action. Often the mezzo singing Mercédès has the goods for a really great Carmen (or she will in a few years); some Dancaïres and Remendados are on track to be Don Josés and Escamillos. It’s fascinating to remember that the Beverly Sills’ first operatic roles was Frasquita, five years before her first Micaëla.

Keep your eyes and ears on all the maids and general helpers-out on stage. Barbarina, Marcellina, Alisa, Giovanna, Giannetta, Annina, they’re all ones to watch for. Aprile Millo sang the High Priestess in Aïda before taking on the title role, which would become one of her signatures. Antonio, the silly gardener in Le nozze di Figaro, may be a Figaro-in-waiting (or Count, who knows?), and Countesses often come out of years of singing Susanna. Even the First Lady herself (Die Zauberflöte) might be a secret Queen of the Night (in fact, First Lady was one of Joan Sutherland’s first professional roles at the Royal Opera House in 1952).

If you truly want to get to know the opera singer’s trajectory, this is the stuff to listen for. It’s like being in on an industry secret, and there’s nothing more thrilling than hearing the “hidden” vocal chops of an Arturo who has graduated to Edgardo.

What do you like to listen for at an opera, besides the leading ladies and gentlemen? Let us know in the comments below!


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