The brilliance of live theater is that anything can happen on stage. The first time I played La Traviata’s Violetta in its entirety was in a shoestring production. The production team had spent what little money they had on getting some nicer period costumes for me. Act one had gone very well, which honestly, is the hardest part of the opera for me. So, after changing into my costume for act two, I was feeling good, and I was ready for my favorite part of the opera.
The duet with the Germont has a tumultuous variety of emotions and absolutely stunning music. The vocal lines feel like they are designed for me and my voice. In this particular production, the gentleman playing Germont was older and tended to follow blocking inconsistently. Since the director and I had discussed that I should adjust to him, the blocking had been very different every night of rehearsal through the first performance. I felt confident in my music and my character so the single variable (where Germont was going to be at any given moment) seemed completely manageable.
After Alfredo finished his aria, I stepped out on stage, adrenaline rushing. After a short exchange with Annina, I sat down at the desk and began attending to Violetta’s business of the day. I stood up when Germont came in and realized that something was very, very wrong. The great hoop underskirt of my costume was loose. I could feel the tie that held it around my waist had loosened. As the internal dialogue began about how I was going to deal with this, Germont started to drift upstage.
I took a deep breath to sing “Donna son io signore” and felt the bow come undone a bit more. I sang the next several lines on auto pilot, my heart hammering trying to figure out what I was going to do next. I fully realized that I had only a few more movements before the hoop skirt was going to fall completely off of me. As Germont began his “Di provenza il mar,” I was frozen in place. When he finished it was clear that he was about to wander upstage again so I instinctively grabbed his hand to keep him from moving and grabbed the hoop skirt through my skirt with the other hand and held on for dear life. We sang the rest of the scene attached to each other and to be very honest most of my thinking consisted of “Oh my God, oh my God!”
A seemingly eternity later, it was time for Germont to leave, and instead of letting him go by himself I walked him off stage still holding my skirt. I stepped out of the line of sight and dropped the hoop underskirt and walked back on stage. Having lost my frame of reference, I pulled my next note out of thin air, and magically stayed in the correct key.
I continued, with a skirt that was suddenly 5 inches too long, but I felt a great deal more in control.
However, the tenor singing Alfredo was completely baffled by the lack of the hoop skirt. Instead of kneeling a foot or so away from me at the edge of the hoop, our characters’ very emotional exchange was suddenly a great deal physically closer. All of the anxiety I had been feeling about the skirt debacle funneled itself into my final “Amami Alfredo, Addio” and I rushed off stage, miraculously without tripping over myself.
The rest of the performance was a complete blur to me and finally, with the final bows came a profound sense of relief. Afterwards, the conductor came up to me in tears, and told me it was the most passionate performance I had ever given, and he was so proud of me. I asked him if the problem with the skirt was too obvious and stared at me and asked “What problem with the skirt?”
Sometimes when something goes wrong on stage, it allows the actor to get out of the way of the character. While my brain was occupied with how to fix the situation, it allowed my voice to do what it is trained to do: to bring a character come to life through music.