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.

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.''

``We arrived in street clothes not realizing the director wanted us to play slaves, writhing on the floor. He wanted us nude, too, but [the late] Carol Fox [former general manager] put a scotch on that. So we wore body stockings and skullcaps.''

The conviviality ends when the call for Act II comes over the speaker. We scramble down the stairs and elevators, funneling through the stage door. En route we run by plastic bologna, grapes that are glued together, and signs saying, ``Nymphs and priests, go to Room 404 for wigs.'' Wires coil into giant earrings on the walls, and the stage floor is a game of numbers and circles that only certain characters can play. Above, blackness tunnels upward for seven stories, making a hideaway for ``La Boh`eme's'' scenery that will unfurl into a garret and city square.

``La Boh`eme'' is set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1800s. During its four acts, the opera laughs and weeps with a ripple of comedy overlaying the undertow of despair as two lovers -- Rudolfo, an impoverished poet, and Mimi, a frail seamstress -- find each other and lose each other.

Rudolfo is sung by Vyacheslav Polosov, who defected to the United States from the Soviet Union, and Mimi by Katia Ricciarelli, who stars in Franco Zeffirelli's film production of ``Otello,'' which recently opened in Los Angeles. Around these two principals revolve their friends, including the flirtatious Musetta (Barbara Daniels) and her lover, Marcello (Alessandro Corbelli).

The stage is packed with people as the rehearsal gets under way. Supers and chorus members point, chatter, scratch, yawn, and chew gum, and one wonders if Act II will ever turn into the Parisian scene it's supposed to be.

But stage director John Copley has a keen eye for putting a moving mosaic together, even amid the ambiance of a gridiron grandstand. His soliloquy: ``All right, all right. You, over here. One, two, three. I need a mother here. Where's a mother? A student. Stand there. Quiet, please.''

Then the piano -- used only for rehearsals -- erupts into Musetta's waltz. And the scene bursts into a merry brouhaha of a Christmas Eve by the Caf'e Momus.

My big moment, however, comes in Act III. Of course, no one sees me, but I get to do something. I'm inside the caf'e, peering out a window flecked with soap-flake snow.

The caf'e's interior is hidden from audience view, with operagoers seeing only an outside scene on a bitter winter night. Along with other supers, I make sure the caf'e door opens and closes so no singer needs to wrestle with a doorknob. When Marcella and Musetta quarrel within the caf'e, we supers bang chairs and stamp feet to portray the fracas. After all, they're busy singing.

Unfortunately, the snow sifting down on Act III's outside setting also filters into the caf'e. So supers help shelter Marcella and Musetta with tarps. It wouldn't do to have two snowmen emerge from a supposedly cozy caf'e.

Funny things happen on the way to the final act. And stage director Copley lets everyone laugh. He seems the kind who carries his own sense of humor in a hip pocket, ready to pull it out when the going gets testy.

None of the happenings rate any knee slapping; it's all just gentle humor that tickles the cast's sensitivities. Like the time Musetta is directed to dribble her drink over the head of her lover, Marcella, to make plain she's miffed. But the glass is too full, and Marcella is showered in the style of a Dial soap commercial. The singing goes on, but supers snicker while someone runs for a towel.

Fragments are rehearsed over and over. Choruses are sung over and over. And gradually, score and scenario mesh into musical tapestry.

It's probably just as well I didn't make it all the way to opening night. You see, I always cry through much of Boh`eme. And supers shouldn't cry -- at least not on stage.

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