Claudia Rosenthal knew something was amiss.
When she woke up on Sunday morning, she had a missed call, a voicemail and a text message from William Powers, director of administration and artistic operations for Pittsburgh Opera, where the 30-year-old soprano is a resident artist.
“Hey Claudia,” Mr. Powers texted her at 9:14 a.m. “Can u give me a buzz at your earliest convenience?”
Less than six hours before the curtain was to rise for the final performance of Pittsburgh Opera’s production of “La traviata,” the lead singer, Danielle Pastin, was sick, and it was unclear whether she would be able to perform. Was Ms. Rosenthal — the understudy who had been playing the small role of Annina — prepared to play Violetta instead?
She told Mr. Powers she was, if need be. About an hour and a half later, Ms. Pastin was still too ill to sing, and Ms. Rosenthal would have to deliver the lead role.
Oh, and by the way, she would still have to sing Annina’s part, too.
That’s right: Ms. Rosenthal went from portraying one role to singing two, including the difficult lead part. She wouldn’t have to sing from memory or act out either role, however. Ms. Pastin was well enough to portray Violetta onstage and lip-sync her lines. Because there was no understudy for Annina, the assistant stage director walked that role without lip-syncing. Ms. Rosenthal, who was wearing a black dress but was visible to the audience, sang both parts from the side of the stage.
“I was having conversations with myself,” she said, “because Violetta and Annina have conversations.”
Due to the complexity of the art form, such last-minute changes are not uncommon in opera. The Metropolitan Opera, which offers many pieces running at once, has a full roster of understudies and can draw from a large group of singers in case of emergency. But regional companies such as Pittsburgh Opera have to be a little more creative in those scenarios, whether flying in somebody from out of town or promoting a resident artist, general director Christopher Hahn said.
“I’m glad that I got to experience something so unusual,” said Pittsburgh Opera subscriber Peter Berger, who was at Sunday’s performance. “Opera can be very tradition-bound, so when something shakes it up a little bit, I think that’s all to the good.”
Local audiences may remember a similar situation in 2008, during one performance of the company’s production of “Aida,” another Verdi opera. Conductor Antony Walker sang the role of Radames from the orchestra pit while an ill tenor acted out the role onstage.
“It adds a whole other dimension to the performance, which is one of the things we celebrate in live performance,” Mr. Hahn said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
After looking through the music at her apartment in Friendship, receiving some last-minute coaching at the company headquarters and going over some duets at the Benedum Center, Ms. Rosenthal’s time had arrived.
“I literally looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘You got this,’” said Ms. Rosenthal, who is from the New York City area. “And then I went on, and I sang two roles.”
During her scenes, she sat or stood on the side, with a lighted music stand and plenty of water, her voice amplified by the wooden proscenium arch. The adrenaline-fueled performance itself was something of a blur.
“I was so laser-focused on the music that was in front of me that I couldn’t take any mental energy to evaluate what was happening,” Ms. Rosenthal said.
Ms. Pastin, who lives in Brighton Heights, got her own break under similar circumstances, filling in at the last minute as Mimi in “La boheme” at a production in Santa Fe. “To be on the other side of that, though, it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “I feel very sad that I wasn’t able to do this last performance.”
Another challenge was technical — trying to match up her lip-syncing with Ms. Rosenthal’s breathing and phrasing.
“We all feel the emotions of the characters differently, and we all interpret them differently, so again it was really important that we were in constant contact with each other,” she said. “There’s a kind of magic that happens on the stage in those situations.”
Mr. Berger, the subscriber, said the performers looked a little uneasy with the arrangement at first, but they found their footing by the middle of the first act. “By the second act, you could forget that this was happening, except when you looked over, of course,” the Strip District resident said. “I think it was a triumph.”
Apparently, so did others. Mr. Berger said the applause Ms. Rosenthal received at the curtain call was unlike anything he had witnessed in Pittsburgh.
“Having Claudia on the stage that way partially broke down the wall between the audience and the performers, and I think the audience appreciated it.”
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1750 and Twitter: @BloomPG.