A `super's' night at the opera
THE Lyric Opera's cattle call came over FM radio. The company was looking for a few good ``supers.'' They got a thronging mass of hopefuls. Including me.Skip to next paragraph
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Supernumeraries are the extras who flesh out the crowd scenes and fill in the ranks of soldiers and slaves when stage curtains go up. In opera, they carry the baskets, the buckets, the spears, and the umbrellas. And sometimes they simply walk across the stage, empty-handed, while soprano and tenor embrace in song.
On this particular occasion, super hopefuls crushed into the city's Civic Auditorium, competing for a walk-on part in the Lyric Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's ``La Boh`eme.'' All were well aware that there's one ultimate criterion for supers. ``They have to fit the shoes and costumes,'' says Molly Eaton, assistant stage manager and super captain.
An abundance of ``you'll do'' and ``sorry'' decisions had already been handed out when my turn came. After jump head SUPER due deliberation, scrutinizers discreetly decided it was my hairstyle that really wouldn't do. ``Much too short'' for any of Boh`eme's super parts. But would I like to run through rehearsals just to get the hang of it all?
There's camaraderie among the supers, especially the veterans. I learned that people get into this super act by both fluke and design, and they come from both tie and T-shirt occupations, with a handful of homemakers amid the group. Their motivation certainly isn't financial, because they net only four bucks a ``call,'' which translates into about $1.33 an hour on some rehearsal nights. But the cr`eme de la cr`eme is that they all get cards admitting them to the eight other dress rehearsals.
Walter Carrington Jr.'s entrance to this greasepaint game definitely wasn't planned. He had always viewed opera as nothing more than ``fat ladies with the shrieks.'' But three years ago, he stopped by the super auditions to pick up a friend for their supper engagement. By the time Mr. Carrington had eaten his spaghetti that night, he was a soldier in Giuseppe Verdi's ``A"ida.''
``After you listen to an opera 20 times or so, it gets drummed into you,'' says Carrington, who is a long-range planner for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. ``And now I love it.''
Dwight Kalas, slim and mustachioed -- a perfect combination for a soldier in Boh`eme -- began plotting his way to the opera stage right after he heard Verdi's ``Otello'' last year. ``Back in high school, I didn't listen to anything but rock-and-roll,'' says Mr. Kalas, who has been employed as a forklift driver since 1970. ``Then I started listening to jazz. And then classical music. And now opera.''
Four years ago Ricardo Basch, a financial adviser with an insurance company, saw supering as the only way to get into sold-out performances.
Andrew Martin had no idea that supering would flip his life right around. He was farming a little, doing odd jobs here and there, when he came to tryouts with his sister. Now he's an acting student at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
As with any other activity, supering has its real pros. Susan Lesher, a fifth-grade schoolteacher, is marking her 12th year. She even got to scream once in Mozart's ``Don Giovanni.'' As a rule, supers must stay mute, although now and then you'll hear them humming. After all, after hearing the score for a score of times, who can resist?
Sandy Bixby has been at it a dozen years, too. She's a lawyer by day with a three-year-old son at home. Ms. Bixby says the hardest supering came when she was painted white to portray a statue in Claudio Monteverdi's ``Orfeo'' and had to stand absolutely still for 26 minutes.
``We carried shields and wore these big heavy breastplates that looked like fenders left over from an old VW,'' she explains.
Then her memory goes back to another year when she answered the cattle call for Richard Strauss's ``Elektra.''