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The audience at the Metropolitan Opera is expecting a little onstage drama tonight. Not just because it's the opening night of the opera "Hamlet," it's that the woman who was to play the role of Ophelia dropped out suddenly, and the new Ophelia, German soprano Marlis Petersen, only had two days in New York to rehearse.

NPR's Robert Smith followed her as she crammed for the role.

ROBERT SMITH: Petersen was in Vienna starring in a production of "Medea" when she got the call from the Metropolitan Opera.

Ms. MARLIS PETERSEN (Opera Singer): In the first moment, I thought, I can't make it.

SMITH: Her last performance in Vienna was Friday night. Even if she could rearrange her schedule, it would mean two days in New York to prepare for a major role.

Ms. PETERSEN: I thought it's absolutely crazy to do that.

SMITH: The rest of the cast of the French opera "Hamlet" had been rehearsing since mid-February. But soprano Natalie Dessay hurt her back, and New York needed Petersen.

Ms. PETERSEN: And then I thought, okay. Come, you will do it. Be courageous and it's saving the Metropolitan Opera. Come on, that's wonderful.

(Soundbite of opera, "Hamlet")

Unidentified Man: (As character) Don't enter really before the queen really calls you.

SMITH: But Petersen might not have pictured this: Thirty hours before curtain and she is mobbed. Costumers, directors, vocal coaches all need just a few minutes to fix this or suggest that. Normally, opera singers rest for the two days before an opera, you know, like a major league pitcher. But yesterday, they brought in the whole orchestra just for Petersen.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Ophelie, as the French say it, is going mad in this scene. She tosses her flowers left and right and spoiler alert she kills herself onstage. Perhaps it's the lack of sleep or growing panic, but Petersen has this crazy part down pat.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: But when she goes to cut her wrists, she misses the packet of stage blood strapped to her arm.

Ms. PETERSEN: It's not easy because I can't look at them. You know, and this is why sometimes you don't get the right spot. And of course it can happen, no?

SMITH: Sitting out in the empty opera hall is Petersen's vocal coach for the performance, Pierre Vallet. He flew out to Vienna to prep Petersen on the music as she was packing to come to New York. Vallet says that she's cramming so much into her brain that it does make it exciting to watch.

Mr. PIERRE VALLET (Vocal Coach): There is an intensity to her acting and to her singing that is very, very good.

SMITH: You say intensity, I say desperation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VALLET: Maybe both. I mean, you can see, you read her very, very well onstage because she's very, very, very concentrated.

SMITH: Because she has to be. Giant 25-foot castle walls rotate in and out of this production - and you wouldn't want one of those smacking you. Petersen gets briefed on how to walk in her bell-shaped white gown. Little steps, don't swing your butt. Every time Petersen comes out for a scene, she's trying on a different wig golden blond, ash blond, brunette. They are costuming her on the fly.

The co-director slumps in his chair. Patrice Caurier says it's nerve-racking. His great fear isn't all these small mistakes. It's the biggie.

Mr. PATRICE CAURIER (Co-Director, "Hamlet"): It's the memory. It's to -suddenly, when you have a blank - I don't know if you say that in English, a blank - and you say, what's coming next? You know, in that time, even if it lasts for two seconds, it seems like an eternity and you panic. Well, I hope she'll be safe from that experience.

SMITH: He looks around for a piece of wood to knock on. Because Petersen didn't arrive until after the final dress rehearsal, the director won't get to see the full production until the audience does tonight.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: The only one who doesn't seem nervous is the star herself. When Marlis Petersen makes a mistake, she laughs and raps her knuckles against her skull. She realizes, though, that this is a huge gamble. The more she crams, the harder she works in rehearsal, the more tired her voice gets.

Ms. PETERSEN: Your voice is telling you, okay, stop now. And when you don't, it gets hurt. It's walking on the edge. I wasn't sure if this is a good idea. But of course, now I have to shut up.

SMITH: At the risk of ruining the whole production by making her answer just one more question, I do have to ask: after a week of almost nonstop singing, what will she do after tonight's opening?

Ms. PETERSEN: I think fall asleep for another three days.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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