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Being Prepared For Unexpected Opportunities

Your big break might come when you least expect it

There’s a renowned Canadian opera singer who has been performing for over twenty years, and from nearly the beginning of his career he has always done the main roles in opera. Most artists start with small roles (a few lines onstage and a minor character in the story), not him—only the key parts. How did he manage this? By being prepared for the role, even though he was only the understudy.

Be ready like you’re the lead

This singer was slated as the understudy for Papageno in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and for whatever reason, the person who was supposed to sing the part couldn’t. The role of an understudy is to a) study the role as part of professional development and b) be ready to go on if there is a problem with the lead (usually illness). Most understudies come to rehearsal mostly ready, by certainly not with the part completely coached and memorized—but not this singer. He was ready for rehearsal like he was going to prepare go on stage. So when this fluke of luck came up, he grabbed it and never looked back.

Are you ready to step in?

Being an understudy isn’t (or shouldn’t) be about showing up the lead. It’s about learning, coaching, and preparing yourself to be the lead down the road. Now think about your business. Are you ready to seize opportunities when they come like a bolt from the blue? Are you ready to give a demo at the last minute? Could you step in for your boss on a key sales call with only a little prep time?

Being fully and confidently prepared to step into the shoes of the lead when called on is part of being a real pro. If you expand this to the rest of your organization, do you have your understudies ready? Are they taking the role of an understudy seriously? As a leader, you need to help groom the talent in your company, at least a few layers deep. Have the people in the wings who can step into a role if the need arose.

Being the understudy is a job

One last note about this singer’s story. The director told him he was surprised that he was “off book” (the part memorized) even though he was “just an understudy”, the singer was surprised. As an understudy his job was to learn and be ready to back up and go on if needed. The director said most singers don’t do that. Most singers weren’t ready at all.

Clearly he wasn’t (and isn’t) most singers. And clearly that choice to work hard and be thoroughly prepared at that crucial time has paid off in decades of lead roles.


  • What role do you need to understudy?
  • Are you ready to go on if called upon?
  • Have you done the work to be ready?
  • Could you seize the opportunity to take the lead?

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
Mobile: 604.831.4734