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My performance was, well, fitting

By Nancy L. Robison / August 23, 2000



At my opera debut, I was told not to sing! And a good thing, too, for Kathleen Battle I am not. Actually, I was only hired because the costume fit. Let me explain.

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I was a volunteer docent at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. There, a group of us ladies gave tours of the auditorium, pointing out artifacts, sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and explaining about the acoustics, the lighting, and the seating in the 2,000-seat auditorium. Tours of children, tours of senior citizens, tours of visiting dignitaries went on daily.

But all this took place in front of the stage, when my deepest desire was to be onstage looking out. I wanted to be a part of the performance - any performance. So when the first call came for "light walkers," I volunteered.

A "light walker" is not someone who walks around on tiptoes. A light walker is a stand-in for the main actors, marking those spots onstage where the performers will stand, while the lighting directors slowly and painstakingly adjust hundreds of controls to get each light just right.

This can take several hours. And wearing the right colors is part of the job.

For the opera "La Boheme," light walkers were requested to wear dark brown, black, or dark blue, as these were the approximate colors of the costumes. For "Fiery Angel," the colors were beige, gray, or tan, and for "Cenerentola" (Cinderella), anything but white. I drew "Fiery Angel."

And after three hours of standing here and there, listening and watching, I must say I gained a better understanding of this art form. Does the audience really appreciate what goes into a performance? I never did.

Being a light walker piqued my interest, so when the next notice came out that the Los Angeles Opera Company was looking for supernumeraries to be in the opera, I rushed to apply.

The audition was what they call in the trade a "cattle call." That is, there was nothing secret about it. Anyone and his grandmother could be there and was there.

Should I bother to stay? I wondered. Here I was, a mother of four, and I didn't even sing! (The last time I was tested to sing with a group, they put me in the back row, far away from the microphone!) What was I doing here with all these would-be actors?

But the group was quickly weeded out by the announcement of what was needed: so many men and women of a certain age and size. You see, for "extras" or supernumeraries, there are no new costumes. The costumes for the chorus travel with the show, and the actors must be found to fit them, not the other way around.

I might have left if it hadn't been for a very British couple who were real troupers, trying out for bit parts in plays, operas, and movies. "Come, come, you must stay," Iris said. "It's great fun. It doesn't pay much, but who cares? The show's the thing and all that!"

I never knew if she and her husband were really British or just good actors, but they convinced me. I stayed. Especially when Charles said, "And you know, Placido Domingo is starring."