It was a gloriously ambitious plan.

In 2007, the Cincinnati Opera announced that to celebrate its 90th season in 2010, it would stage a massive new production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. But instead of setting the opera in 16th Century Europe, they would give it a local twist, setting it in 19th Century Over-the-Rhine.

The production would be led by Cincinnati native James Levine, music director of both the Metropolitan Opera and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and would feature a pair of operatic notables, bass James Morris and soprano Hei-Kyung Hong.

It was remarkable coup for Evans Mirageas, who had been appointed the company's artistic director just a year earlier.

Then everything began to unravel.

The bottom dropped out of the economy. By the summer of 2009, what had seemed a workable budget "” $2 million "” was suddenly unthinkably high.

Then, in mid-April, 2010 "” just two months before the mammoth production was to premiere "” Levine dropped out of the production. Back surgery forced him to cancel dozens of appearances. A week later, the situation got even worse; the two leading singers dropped out of the production, with one citing a impending surgery, the other "pressing family concerns."

Crisis management, anyone?

So where do you start? With grand opera, you can't just push back the opening a few weeks. When June 23 rolls around, Music Hall will be packed with an audience expecting to see and hear a first-rate Wagner production.

The fact is that Wagner is another complicating factor. If Mirageas were dealing with a more frequently performed opera "” La Bohème, for instance "” the pool of possible replacements would be much larger. But because Die Meistersinger is so huge and so demanding, there just aren't very many singers or conductors who know the music well enough.

"I found exactly 40 people in the entire world who had performed the role of Hans Sachs in the past 10 years," says Mirageas, speaking of the leading male role that had been vacated by Morris.

By contrast, if you search that same database for singers who performed a leading role in La Bohème you'll find hundreds. "There just aren't that many people who are capable of stepping into this," Mirageas says.

Even fewer are available.

Typically, artists of this caliber are engaged many years in advance. The Cincinnati Opera announced the details of this production in July 2007 "” three years before opening night. The odds of the ideal singer/conductor being available in the height of music festival season were very, very slim.

But then, this is precisely the sort of situation where you want a man like Mirageas in your front office.

Earlier in his career, he was senior vice-president of Artists and Repertoire for the Decca Record Company Ltd., a position that put him on a first-name basis with many of the heavyweights of the classical music and opera world. Before that, he was artistic administrator for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the world's great orchestras.

And Mirageas is an inveterate wheeler-dealer. Like other notable impresarios, he loves nothing more than piecing together what others might consider impossible.

First there was the issue of a new setting for the opera. Dropping the Over-the-Rhine staging saved enormous amounts of money. But how much would replacement sets and costumes cost? Where would they come from? It's not like running to the costume store the night before Halloween.

Mirageas turned to two of the company's most resourceful staff members: Director of Production Glenn Plott and Director of Artistic Operations Marcus Küchle.

They scoured the opera world, calling colleagues and searching the internet.

It didn't take long before they discovered a complete package "” sets, props and costumes "” in Dusseldorf, Germany. It turns out that Deutsche Oper am Rhein was preparing to junk the entire production. Designed by the same team who created the Metropolitan Opera's 1993 Die Meistersinger, this 1980 production was too big for Dusseldorf's limited warehouse space.

By the time Plott, Küchle and Mirageas were done negotiating, the entire package was on its way to Cincinnati. Though Mirageas won't confirm the exact price, he admitted that $50,000-$60,000 is very close. "Let's just say that it was insane in terms of a great deal."

Finding a conductor proved to be simpler.

As luck would have it, John Keenan, who conducted the last performance of Die Meistersinger at the Met, was already under contract to conduct La Bohème in Cincinnati this summer. And because of his longtime friendship with Levine, Keenan had already agreed to come to Cincinnati ahead of time and prepare the singers.

"It couldn't have worked out any better," Keenan says. "Even in the best of situations, Meistersinger is an enormous undertaking. The last act, you know, is as long as the entire production of La Bohème."

The last puzzle was the singers.

As Mirageas made his way through list after list of singers' repertoires, he found a name that he recognized"” James Johnson.

"Finally, it dawned on me," Mirageas says. "He was here as part of the May Festival last year. I'd never heard him before. But as soon as he started to sing, my ears perked up. He was wonderful. And as I've come to learn, he's one of those singers who has been grossly undervalued by our business. But I'll tell you, this guy has the goods."

Just as important, Johnson knew the role and was available to sing.

Now came the tough one: the role of Eva.

"Very few women sing this role," Mirageas says. "And all the women I'd actually heard myself were busy."

He'd hit a dead end. Until, that is, the Music Hall's master carpenter Roger Adams mentioned the dilemma to Carol Isaac, a prompter at the Metropolitan Opera.

"She e-mailed me and said that she had been working with a young singer who has prepared the role but hasn't yet performed it," Mirageas says.

He was incredulous. Even more amazing, that young singer turned out to be a woman he had worked with several times in the past "” Twyla Robinson, a winner of the 2002 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

"By some miracle she was free," Mirageas says. "And she's been dying to make good on all the time she spent learning the role."

And so, on April 28 "” just three weeks before Die Meistersinger was scheduled to go into rehearsal "” the Cincinnati Opera announced that all the pieces of its opening production were in place. Again.

"Of course, it was a disappointment to lose all these wonderful people," Mirageas says. "But these are all wonderful singers, too. And this will be a wonderful production. In the end, I hope that our audiences view this as a love letter to Cincinnati to remind us of what a great city we have been "” and where we are going to go again."