An unforgettable night at the opera for the waitress who dreamed of a starring role

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For most of her adult life, Erika Sunnegardh was the epitome of a frustrated performer in New York City. Her artistic vocation was singing, but to make ends meet she endured the usual drudgery - waiting on tables in the Bronx where she lives and working as a tour guide. To keep her vocal chords alive, she did the occasional wedding and funeral.

If Ms Sunnegardh, who is 40, awoke yesterday wondering if she was in the middle of a wonderful dream, who could blame her? On Saturday, the unimaginable had happened: she had sung the starring role in Beethoven's Fidelio at the Metropolitan Opera.

In the annals of opera, there are few fairy tales as compelling as this one. The waitressing lasted for 18 years and until only 18 months ago, Ms Sunnegardh had never even sung opera on a stage anywhere. She will now be the inspiration to anyone in this city serving tables and wondering when - if ever - their big break will come.

The Met first came across the slightly built and blonde Ms Sunnergardh, a Swedish-American, when she turned up in late 2004 to give two very brief auditions. The opera house was struck by the power of her voice, especially in the upper range, and remembered her name. This year, it asked her to understudy for Karita Mattila, singing the title role in Fidelio.

And, this weekend, the moment that every understudy prays for came to be: Mattila fell ill and the waitress was summoned. Better yet, she was asked to sing in the Saturday afternoon performance, which is broadcast on the radio to 10 million listeners.

Her delight was there for the full house of fans to see when two burly men lifted her on their shoulders in the closing moments of Saturday's performance.

Ms Sunnegardh, with her mother, Margareta, in the stalls, wore a smile bigger even than her voice.

"Oh my God, I just tripped over a box I didn't see," she recalled to reporters shortly after the final curtain came down. "And then I forgot to eat my banana. You forget things, and the show goes on anyway. It's amazing." Paying tribute to her unexpected Met due was opera star Ben Heppner, who sings Florestan in the production.

"It was ice water in those veins. I could sense lots and lots of adrenaline, but I didn't sense nerves," said Heppner, who in February sang during the closing ceremony of the Turin Olympics. "She did a great, great job."

Ms Sunnegardh admitted that often during her long slog in the opera wilderness she wondered if it was all worth it. "After 18 years, I'd have to be, you know, dead, not to think I was on a relatively iffy road," she said after the performance.

Her mother agreed that the years of scratching a living with other jobs had sometimes discouraged her daughter. "There were times she was very depressed with the way things had gone," she said. "Now it's pretty great that she stuck with it."

Scholars of opera may compare Ms Sunnegardh's appearance on Saturday with the night in 1968 when another unknown singer was asked at the last minute to step in for Franco Corelli when he called in sick. His name was Placido Domingo.

The manager of the Met, Joseph Volpe, recalls the moment the opera house discovered Ms Sunnergardh in his memoir The Toughest Show on Earth, which will be published next month. "Not since Rosa Ponselle's debut in 1918, opposite Caruso in La Forza de Destino, has the Met given an unknown singer such an opportunity," he writes.

Ms Sunnegardh only made her professional debut at a Swedish opera festival singing in Puccini's Turandot in September 2004. She had already been slated, meanwhile, to sing the 'Fidelio' part for the Met at this production's final outing on 13 April. But thanks to Ms Matilla, her big moment came a little earlier than expected.