CINCINNATI — After nearly two years in the making, the Cincinnati Opera’s performance of "Romeo and Juliet," which will take place this week in Music Hall, almost didn’t happen.
"I work two years in advance in general, particularly for title roles," said Evans Mirageas, artistic director of the Cincinnati Opera. "I had my cast pretty much fully assembled by the middle of 2017."
His cast for French composer Charles Gounod’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of star-crossed lovers originally included American soprano Nicole Cabell as Juliet and Canadian tenor Frédéric Antoun as Romeo. Fast forward to this May.
The Cincinnati Opera was weeks away from the start of its 2019 season on June 13. Season programs were printed, tickets sold and rehearsals of "Romeo and Juliet" were scheduled to begin within two weeks. Then a real-life drama started to unfold for Mirageas and the cast of "Romeo and Juliet" he had assembled two years before: The opera suddenly found itself without a Romeo.
"He had to withdraw to look after his health," Mirageas said of Antoun. "This particular singer was just simply exhausted. He had been eight months on the road."
Mirageas said while he was sympathetic to Antoun’s plight, the situation placed the artistic director into a panic-inducing situation.
"It was nerve-wracking because at this short notice, basically a couple of weeks before rehearsals were supposed to start, the pickings are slim," Mirageas said of recasting the role.
The opera couldn’t recruit a European tenor for the role due to the lack of time to bring one to the United States. And other opera companies in the United States operate in much the same way Cincinnati’s does — they book talent years in advance.
At that point, the opera was about six weeks away from its two performances of "Romeo and Juliet," which will take place 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Music Hall.
Then something happened that had never been seen in a Shakespearean tragedy: After Mirageas issued a call for help to the broader opera community, a hero stepped forward to save the day.
"I got a call from my manager and I was in bed," said tenor Matthew White. The 27-year-old had performed the role of Romeo while at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia shortly before completing four years of study there in May.
"He said, 'Hey, you know, what are you doing right now?' And I said, ‘Well, I’m sleeping.’ He said, 'Can you, how do you feel about doing Romeo in a house of this size?' and I said, 'Well, you're the one who heard me do it last. I feel fine about it. How do you feel about it?’"
After that phone call, White spoke with Mirageas and then found himself with the rest of the cast of "Romeo and Juliet" in the last week of May for the first day of rehearsals at Music Hall.
"He opened his mouth, and I’m a very keen observer of the room, and I looked around and everybody’s jaw went to about here," Mirageas said motioning to his chest.
"You never know what chemistry is going to be like with somebody," Cabell said, adding that though White was a bit of an X-factor at first, it quickly became apparent to her that their on-stage chemistry as Romeo and Juliet "couldn’t be better. He’s really fantastic."
White said if he hadn't landed the role of Romeo, his summer plans would have involved enjoying a few hobbies at home while preparing for Operalia, the world opera competition taking place July 21-26 in the Czech Republic.
"I’ve got a couple passions," he said. "Music is one of them. Surfing is another, and I really like cars. I was going to finish building a Volkswagen GTI."
Mirageas said after his initial conversation that the situation was "too good to be true."
"If you want to know a regular guy who happens to have a God-given great tenor voice, it’s Matthew White," Mirageas said. "My bet is 20 years from now, people are going to say, ‘Well, I was at that Cincinnati Opera where Matthew White shot to stardom.'"