Janice Baird Debuts in a Troubled 'Tristan'

Soprano Janice Baird

American soprano Janice Baird made a surprise Metropolitan Opera debut earlier this month when she filled in mid-performance for an ailing diva. Courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the artist

Opera is a complex art form, involving singers, actors, sets, costume and lighting designers, stage directors, and an orchestra with conductor. With so many moving parts, a lot can go wrong.

When a production fires on all cylinders the result can be transforming. Then there are those productions that seem jinxed. The Metropolitan Opera's current Tristan und Isolde (by Richard Wagner) is just such a production. Barring any more mishaps, by the time the run ends — the final performance is Friday — this production will have gone through three Tristans and two Isoldes.

But, in classical music especially, one musician's illness can be another's breakthrough moment. Think of Leonard Bernstein's rise to fame in 1944 when he conducted the New York Philharmonic, covering for an ailing Bruno Walter, or the little-known Luciano Pavarotti filling in for an indisposed Giuseppe Di Stefano in 1963.

American soprano Janice Baird made a surprise Met Opera debut on March 14, when she replaced Deborah Voigt as Isolde. (The production was in its second night and already on its second tenor, as Tristan.) Roughly halfway through the nearly five-hour-long opera, Voigt left the stage in mid-performance with a stomach ailment. After a pause of 15 minutes Baird had been fitted into a costume and finished the performance.

New Yorker critic Alex Ross called Baird's debut "exceptional work," given the circumstances, saying there is "no crazier place to begin a performance than in the midst of Act II, during the most tumultuous love scene in opera."

Baird has sung the role of Isolde before, but still, she says, being asked at a moment's notice to step on to the Met stage is pretty incredible.

"There wasn't any time to get nervous," Baird told Madeleine Brand. "I got madly made-up, my hair done, was not warmed up, with literally no time at all. And about 10-15 minutes later they pulled the curtain down and dragged me out there."

Voigt returned to the title role, but bowed out on another night. Baird was summoned again, late in the afternoon, and she sang the role—one of opera's most difficult—with a head cold.

"Nobody wants to be called at the last minute, like that," Baird said. "And I would prefer not to have my break at the cost of my colleague's illness, but you are glad for the opportunity."

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