At Tuesday night's technical rehearsal for the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre production of The Phantom of the Opera, the Phantom's voice vanished.
Michael Preacely was offstage, set to sing the words of a letter the Phantom had written to onstage characters, but his microphone wasn't working. There were no words — until two voices rose from the seats in the Opera House.
In the audience, Jacob Waid and Todd Jones began singing the Phantom's directions to the characters onstage.
Preacely wasn't being upstaged. He, Waid and Jones were triple-cast in the production and are well versed on the Phantom's lines.
The Phantom isn't the only part being divided among several actors.
The role of Christine, the Phantom's obsession, and six other leading parts are spread among three student singers each. That's so as not to put too much pressure on any individual performer and to give a large pool of singers a chance to take on roles in the unprecedented production, which opens Friday for 10 performances at the Lexington Opera House.
"Christine was never a role I had in mind as a student," says one of the actresses, Rebecca Farley. "It never even crossed my mind."
That's because, unlike virtually any other opera or musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom, first produced in 1986, has not been available for anything other than official professional productions. But the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which administers the rights to the show, recently started making it available to colleges and high schools. UK secured the rights and is the first group in the region to produce it.
It was a huge surprise to singers in the program, who were waiting last spring to hear what the next production would be after the February mounting of Giuseppe Verdi's Falstaff.
"The end of one opera always means the beginning of another, so there's always this excitement, 'What's it going to be?'" says Monica Dewey, who also plays Christine.
Maybe surprisingly to some observers, there was a mixed reaction among students when Phantom was announced for UK Opera Theatre. Although the word opera is in Phantom's title, it is musical theater.
"It was hard for some people to go over the border to musical theater," Dewey says.
Elizabeth Maurey, the third Christine, recalls hearing, "How am I going to put this on my résumé? Will anyone respect the fact that I did this role?"
Preacely, a baritone who said he wasn't angry about Phantom but had hoped for Verdi's Rigoletto, recalls thinking, "What the hell am I going to play in Phantom?"
He had never thought of himself in the show, but others certainly could see themselves in it. Says Maurey: "I saw the movie in middle school, and immediately I wanted to be Christine."
Misgivings for the most part turned to excitement, the singers say, and a realization that Phantom is, in many ways, as serious an undertaking as grand opera. Christine's part, they say, has a 31/2-octave range, and Phantom straddles the line between tenor and baritone.
"It's no cakewalk," director Richard Kagey says. "It's not necessarily what the human voice sings in range. Untrained singers don't do well with this show."
He also says that Phantom is somewhat appropriate for an opera program. "The Phantom is a voice teacher. And the relationship between him and Christine is very much that of a voice teacher and a student."
Minus the murder and maniacal obsession, in most cases.
And when it comes to résumés, the students have come to realize that the roles are jewels.
There have been thousands of Rigolettos and other opera and musical characters, but the people who have been able to play the roles in Phantom are limited to professionals in the Broadway company, other major city productions and national tours.
"Being in the cast and getting to sing this wonderful music has been an artistic joy and a spiritual treat," says Jones, who won't be able to play the role onstage after all, because of a knee injury he suffered in a basketball game. But he has sung the role in promotional performances around the area.
"I could see myself doing this role professionally," Farley says. "Whereas before, I would have thought, it all has to be opera. This has opened a whole new world to me."