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.
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."
And because I happened to be the right size for the costume, I was hired as a supernumerary in eight performances of "La Boheme".
For those who do not know what a supernumerary is, think "spear carrier" - one who stands in the background and holds a prop. In my case, it was not a spear, but an umbrella.
Now, you may think that all those extra people onstage are just wandering around wherever they please, but that is not so. There is a deliberate spot for each one to stand, walk, pause, turn, and so on. This must not be ad-libbed. One wrong move could throw off the divas or the tenors and "we can't have that!" the director said.
So we and the chorus of singers rehearsed and rehearsed, day after day. We kept looking for Placido Domingo, but he was never at rehearsal. His stand-in rehearsed in his place - and sang very well.
Iris said, "Perhaps he has sung this so many times, he knows it perfectly and doesn't need to rehearse!"
She was right. At the dress rehearsal, Mr. Domingo finally came onstage with us. The director had a few changes to make in Domingo's performance. Wow! even a big star has to take direction. But Placido Domingo is a pro. He caught on right away, and his performance was dynamic, as usual.
A lot happened before the actual performance. The "supers," as we were called, got our costumes, complete with hosiery and shoes; all must be authentic-looking, you know.
And we had dressers. We were not permitted to button or zip up each other. Only assigned dressers could do this. Props - umbrellas, handbags, shopping bags, flags - were placed on tables and labeled with our character's name. I was "Colette."
The best was yet to come. The wigs! Long tables with Styrofoam heads held wigs for both men and women. Iris got one the same color as her own hair, dark brown, but Colette was a redhead. It changed my look completely, going from blond to red. My family will never recognize me, I thought. (And they wouldn't have, either, if I hadn't told them exactly where to look.)
Everyone in the company was given complimentary tickets to one of the performances. Since Iris and her husband had no one to give theirs to, I was fortunate enough to get four extras. So I invited friends as well as family. What a treat, everyone thought, as did I - complimentary tickets to see Placido Domingo and "La Boheme" - not to mention yours truly.
The seats were in the highest balcony - practically on another planet, but everyone was gracious, sent flowers backstage, and raved about my performance.
And about the singing. The supers were told, in no uncertain terms, not to sing! But after so many rehearsals and so many performances, we began to know the music. The words in French were a little difficult, but guess what? In the last scene, which was a parade, we sang!
We sang as loudly as we wanted to, and no one could hear us over the orchestra and the strong voices of the chorus and stars! So, I guess I can rightfully say I sang in "La Boheme" alongside Placido Domingo!
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society