29 April 2010

How to Have a Super Night at the Opera

Not all of these people are singing.

If you possess an interest in opera but lack the fundamental skills to sing in one, despair not. You can still take part — as a supernumerary. You’ll be rewarded with a greater appreciation of the world’s most complex and fascinating art form.

First, you must meet a few basic requirements. You should be graceful enough to cross the stage without tripping and knocking down the scenery. You should be able to follow directions, and to remember them, so that the soprano doesn’t have to interrupt her aria to tell you to cross left, not right. You should have sufficient spare time to attend rehearsals and all the scheduled performances. No excuses accepted: your daughter has waited 13 years for her bat mitzvah, and dammit, there’s no reason she can’t wait a few more days.

Above all, you should not expect a paycheck. American opera companies aren’t kidding when they declare they’re non-profit.

Amneris’ aerobics class

It’s helpful if you look presentable. Certain operas require a specific appearance: Aida, for example, requires crowds of bodybuilders, because archaeologists tell us that every man in Ancient Egypt worked out at Gold’s Gym six times a week. However, most operas require mainly that you fit into whatever costume they rented for you.

As it happens, I’ve never had any trouble buying off the rack. And so, in the fall of 1980, I answered a call for supers for a production of Puccini’s Tosca, presented by the late, lamented Providence Opera Theatre. My acting teacher, Jim Barnhill, heard that they needed people for the show, and Jim said he’d give us scene credit for participating. I didn’t need any extra inducement.

When I got to the theater with a couple of my classmates, I discovered that the leading lady was Clarice Carson, who’d sung my first Madame Butterfly, at Dallas Civic Opera a few years earlier. Her Scarpia was Lenus Carlson, the prototype of the modern-day barihunk, who sang Silvio in the first opera I ever saw, Pagliacci, also in Dallas. For about three days, all the girls in my sixth-grade class nurtured passionate crushes on him.

Lenus Carlson:
Rated “Cuter than Greg Brady”
by the girls of Bowie Elementary

Naturally, I shared this fascinating information with both the singers, half-expecting them to say, “And look how far you’ve come! Our humble performances launched your brilliant career, and now you’re starring in an opera with us!” (Their actual responses were more vague but impeccably polite.)

Of more immediate importance was the Cavaradossi, whom I’d never seen before. He was an Italian tenor in high-heeled boots and a bad hairpiece that were not part of his costume; I was told I would have to shoot him in the last act. As soon as I heard him sing, I banished any remorse I might have felt.

Indeed, it was all I could do to keep from executing him in the first act. Preferably sometime prior to “Recondita armonia.”

We supers got two costumes apiece: we were Swiss Guards in Act I, and soldiers in Act III. I had nothing to do in Act II, so I stood in the wings and watched Clarice Carson and Lenus Carlson tangle with each other. I realized that I was mouthing all the lyrics, of both roles: I’d listened to my old Callas–Gobbi recording so many times that I’d memorized the entire scene. Carlson caught me and asked if I were a singer; I assured him that if he’d ever heard me, he wouldn’t risk encouraging me now.

Thereupon, it’s entirely possible that Carlson replied that, since I wasn’t a singer, would I kindly knock off the two-bit ventriloquist act? Because it was distracting. However, this is the sort of petty detail that time clouds over in my memory.

I decided to create a back-story for each of my characters. In Act I, I was Riccardo, a simple country lad who had come to Rome and enlisted in the Swiss Guard.* I had a drinking problem, and my mistress was slowly poisoning me, little suspecting that I had gambled away my inheritance years ago, leaving my widowed mother to raise my brothers and sisters in Penury, near Umbria. I adored opera and had heard Floria Tosca sing many times, but I couldn’t betray my excitement when I saw her in the church, because my dedication to duty was absolute.

In Act III, I was Luigi, a simple country lad who had come to Rome and enlisted in the army. I collected stamps.

A Swiss Guard: For one night only,
I looked remarkably like this guy.

Then — suddenly — the opera was starting. Those brilliant, blaring chords came crashing out of the orchestra pit, and it was as if a runaway train were speeding straight at me. Yes, I’d listened to the recording eight million times and attended one performance of Tosca, but this was a completely different experience. It was huge. Even backstage, the sound was more tremendous than anything I’d ever heard — until I got onstage, when the sound was even more powerful. You haven’t lived until you’ve been inside the Te Deum.

I could understand how people get hooked on this: I sympathized with singers who sacrifice and struggle just for this sensation, this rush of the stage.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found any photos of Clarice Carson.
This is Magda Olivero, my first Tosca.

To paraphrase Mia Farrow, I kept thinking, “This isn’t a play; this is really happening.” I’d acted in lots of plays, and even a couple of musicals. This was different. There were so many people coordinating all their efforts. If any one of us screwed up — if I screwed up — the whole train could run off the tracks. And then what?

The pressure was getting to me. I tried to remember my blocking, which consisted primarily of being told not to walk as if I were doing the Graduation March. This proved more difficult than expected: the music was so stately, the rhythm so insistent.

The little Italian tenor was sweating already. All the singers were working hard, actually, though they were trying not to show it quite so much. I wondered how much preparation had gone into this single performance: years of study, weeks of coaching, hours of rehearsal. But only one chance to get it right.

Mercifully, some kinds of screw-ups didn’t matter. For example, nobody cared that Clarice Carson “forgot” the stage director’s orders and sang the entirety of “Vissi d’arte” from the floor. (She thought it worked better her way, and she may have been right. After all, she’d sung the part more often than the director had. And the audience loved her.)

Neither did anybody notice that I forgot to load my rifle before shooting Cavaradossi. The tenor fell over just the same, as soon as he heard the rat-a-tat-tat from the percussion section.

I don’t remember whether Clarice Carson jumped at the end, or whether we had a simple blackout instead. I do remember that we were supposed to run on, and then freeze. “Avanti a Dio,” and the show was over.** No cast party, no victory celebration. And no paycheck. I went home — to real life. I’ve never supered since.

But every now and then, I’ll see a casting call for the opera, and I’ll get a craving to point a wooden rifle, or to carry a spear, or to stand around looking solemn when the soprano hits an E-flat. Really, how often does one get to do any of that? I’ll do it again some day, and in the meantime, I recommend the experience to everyone.

*NOTE: Are Swiss Guards actually Swiss? Can Italians enlist? I didn’t have time to do research.

**So was Providence Opera Theatre. The company shut down not long afterward. This was my first — but by no means the last — lesson in the precarity of producing opera in America.

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

Recent archaeological evidence suggests that, in Ancient Egypt, the workout equipment at Gold’s Gym was made out of real gold. Celeste!