Opera, As Seen From The Bottom
Over the course of twenty-two years, I was a supernumerary in eighteen productions by The Dallas Opera. From small productions like Donizetti's The Elixer of Love to the 800-pound gorilla of opera – Wagner's 5 1/2 hour Gotterdammerung (two cycles, 1985 and 2002) – I've spent a lot of time in rehearsal halls, on stage, and especially backstage.
Not Just An Extra
A supernumerary, or just "super", is essentially an extra that handles the non-singing, non-speaking parts on stage. We're the bartenders, the waiters, the guards, the fill that makes the stage more busy. We're often scattered in with the chorus; if you look carefully when you see an opera, you'll notice that all of the chorus isn't singing. Those are my people -the supers.
We attend practically all rehearsals, get paid less than minimum wage, sit for hours, stand for hours, get asked to do the crazy things and work the hours that the rest of the production – all union – won't do. In the highly stratified world of the opera company, we're at the bottom and often treated like that. Our ranks are filled with everyone from unemployed gas-station attendants to CEOs. Usually, the common bond is that we love opera.
And we share a secret: This is totally the coolest job on earth you can walk in off the street for.
I've been the dragon that battles the archetypal Nordic hero in two productions of Siegfried, moving on my knees and triggering a fire extinguisher slung under one arm for the dragon's breath as I move on cue to the German words. I've stood on stage, alone with Brunnhilde for fifteen minutes in Gotterdammerung as she sings her famous final aria (praying that the deadman switch on the torch I'm holding doesn't flip off, otherwise she won't have a working torch to set Siegfriend's funeral pyre alight).
I've stood at ground zero as world class bass-baritones like Samuel Ramey as Méphistophélès and Eric Halvorsen as Hagen belt it out; you'd think the doors in the back of the hall would have blown open. I've gotten to work with Dame Joan Sutherland on her last operas in The Merry Widow before she retired, and stepped outside the stage door to listen to The Rolling Stones play Sympathy For The Devil at a nearby stadium.
And yes, I've stood in line and held a spear! Wait until you hear the chorus sing "Happy Birthday" to a fellow chorus member; it won't ever sound the same again to you.
There are many rules to being a super, and most of them are unwritten. You learn them either from your fellow supers – or by getting yelled at by the production assistants, director, assistant director, chorus master, stage manager, principals, chorus members, stage crew, production crew, and some others I'm sure I've left out.
To make life a little easier for new supers, a few years ago I put down these formerly unwritten rules: The Super Commandments. (PDF)
As a supernumerary in an opera, your evenings are forfeit for almost a month; you earn only gas money and reside at the bottom of the opera hierarchy. What you’re offered in exchange is the chance to walk in off the street and work alongside musicians at the top of their profession, and to be part of a production that (hopefully) you’ll remember for years. There are a lot of unwritten rules, however…
Thou Shalt Not
- …Make an entrance without a stage manager's cue, unless overridden by thy director. (Director trumps stage manager every time.)
- …Play with the props or sit on the sets, lest they tilt or fall and make loud crashing noises offstage. (Your injury is secondary to the noise.)
- …Question thy director's instructions except to get clarification.
- …Make creative suggestions to more fully enrich and motivate thy part, unless encouraged by thy director.
- …Talk back to thy director.
- …Talk to the soloists on stage (depending on the soloists & director), or overly intrude upon them. They have much more to think about than thee.
- …Talk when thy director is talking.
- …Talk (or sing!) on stage during a production, regardless of thy inspiration from the soloists and chorus.
- …Make noise in the wings, or any place offstage where it might be heard onstage.
(Do you get the impression talking is generally a bad thing?)
- …Leave the house until dismissed and thou knowest the call for the next rehearsal / performance.
- …Loiter in the wings during scene changes, lest thou sustain injury from a tree, rock, wooden horse, dragon, or busy stage hand.
- …Leave backstage in costume. It is disconcerting for audience members to see a helmeted Gibichung sit down next to them during dress rehearsal, or smoking a cigarette outside the stage door.
- …Wear eyeglasses or jewelry when in costume onstage. Hunding’s men didn’t typically wear bifocals to see where they should throw their spears.
- …Position thyself to see the audience from backstage – for verily, if thou canst see the audience, they canst probably see thee.
- …Walk along the backdrop. Thy passage creates a pressure wave that ripples across the backdrop, clearly showing thy passage to the audience.
- …Always be where thou canst hear thy stage manager's instructions – e.g. not in the house (in advanced rehearsals).
Proximity to musical talent doth not confer it. Shut up, hit your mark on time, do your job professionally, and don't whine.
Thou art a super, not a principal – a small cog in a large machine. Reliability and consistency is more prized in a super than brilliance and insight.
Read the libretto if thou wishest to really know what's happening onstage.