The Secret Life Of An Opera Supernumerary

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The bus dropped me off on Market Street in San Francisco, CA., and I walked a few more blocks south to this nondescript building with a monotone façade straight out of 1960’s Soviet Union.  I pressed the intercom button.

“Name?” came the voice from the other end.

“Uh, E__. I’m here for the fitting,” I replied.

“Last name?”


“Second floor.”

Bzzzt, the door unlocked and I entered.  I walked up the one flight of stairs and enter the byzantine world of opera costumes.  Instead of the hustle and bustle that ran through my imaginations, the place was rather hushed, with one person in an office looking over some papers.  Another person walked by acknowledging me with a simple smile.  I sat down at the waiting area, playing on my iPhone to while away the time.

After about fifteen minutes, a thin older man came by and asked me to follow him to the fitting room.  Looking around, there was a large mirror, a hanger stand with some costumes hung on it.

“What’s his costume?” the older, Gandalf-looking man asked.

“A kuroko,” replied a younger woman, who appeared to be an intern at the costume shop.

“Ok, take off your clothes,” said Gandalf.

Uh-oh.  I don’t know how others dress, but I am one of a few(? many?) who eschew the underwear.  I just wear my pants with whatever I wear on top.  So I slowly take off my jacket, and shirt.

“Take off the pants too,” Gandalf ordered.

So there I was, standing there stark naked.  The other man came by and started measuring me all over.

“Neck, 15 inches; center of back to elbow, 17 inches…” the man called out.  The intern wrote down the numbers.  All dimensions were measured: crotch to floor, center of calf to floor, waist to back of knee, waist, hips, chest, chest under the arms, neck to small of back, and so on.

After all the measuring, they gave me a pair of pants, all black, and a long-sleeve shirt, also all black.  I put them on.  Then a pair of black socks and a pair of tabi shoes.  I looked like a ninja.  At the same time, I’m wondering what role in The Magic Flute would have me wear such a costume.  (For those who are not familiar with the opera, there’s no ninjas in it.)

Fully costumed, Gandalf and his assistant walked around me, pinching the shirt, lifting the shoulder, pulling the sleeves downing a bit.  With his white tailor’s chalk, he marked up the clothing and then asked me to change back to my clothes.

I did and casually walked out of the costume shop back to the bright daylight of the city.  That was my first introduction to the world of opera supernumerary.

Our first rehearsal was in the evening.  I arrived at the War Memorial with plenty of time, hoping to be oriented to the ways of the backstage world.  We were the supers and A__ was our supervisor.  A__ was the super-super.

“Since you’re new, let me introduce you to B__.  B__, help E__ learn his way around here,” said A__.

B__ took me around the labyrinthine basement underneath the main stage and orchestra-level seating.  We walked by the women’s extras dressing room, then the women’s chorus dressing room.  The men’s dressing room.  “And here is where you’ll go for changing to your costume,” B__ pointed out.  Dressing room #7 it was.  There was one big room with a table circling the room facing the mirror ringing the room, just above the table.  There were no fancy lights or a store of make-up material.  Taped on the mirror were names of the current set of extras and a small description of what the person has to do.  At the moment, the ongoing production is Verdi’s Attila, so the descriptions include make-up and an elaborate array of costume parts.

We then walked over to the most important room in the subterranean workspace.  That was the cafeteria.  It’s a combination resting area, recreation room, buffet room, and preparation station for upcoming scenes.  B__ left me alone in the cafeteria as he went off to attend to some details.  I took the opportunity to snoop around myself some more, checking out the even lower depths of the building.  Down directly underneath the center of the stage were the trap doors and entrance through the trap doors.  To the left and right were racks and racks of costumes from other previous operas.  In the back were the crew’s lockers.  The crew consists of the riggers, the lighting specialists, the gaffers and those who move the sets around or create props.

Over the PA system came the call for all extras to meet at the stage.  We fifty or so people assembled at the stage to hear from the director, H__, explain how this opera will go.  It will be sung in English and have a Japanese set design.  This will be a completely new production, so we’re all playing by ear to see what works, what fails and  how to fix the failings.

I scanned across the floor to see who the people are.  My eyes caught the eyes of C__, a soprano chorus member.  She smiled and acknowledged out eye contact.  I smiled back.  I don’t even know who were my fellow extras, nor what my role would be, but we stood there for the next hour as H__ asked us to go through some steps.

“You and B__ will take this and walk like this,” H__ explained, tracing a curving path over the front of the stage.  B__ and I would walk from stage right rear towards center, then curve back to stage right front, ending up facing back to the stage center front after walking a long convoluted backwards “S”.  After we got to our spots, we knelt down and then the chorus members sang out their parts.  Then that was it.

The first rehearsal was over and as I walked by, C__ came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m C__.  You’re new here aren’t you?”

“Yup.  First day,” I replied.

“We’re going for coffee now.  Want to join?” C__ asked, ending with a sly smile.

I was done for my first rehearsal, so I appreciated the opportunity to chat with some of the more seasoned member of the talent group.  We went out to Peet’s next to Books Inc.  It was just closing, so we decided to walked back to Max’s Opera Cafe.  There were three of us: me, C__ and another soprano, D__.

“We noticed you were new.  I guessed you’re gay.  Are you?” asked a rather direct D__.

“No, I’m not,” I replied.

“Hah!  I win!” exclaimed C__.  She looked at me and we high-fived.  “Ok, what are you drinking?” she continued, “I’ll buy.”

“House red is fine,” I answered.

“One house red.  Merlot?” C__ asked as she turned around to look at me.  I nodded approval, “and I’ll have a cosmo.  Make that two.  You want one, D__?”

D__ also nodded approval.  “E__, so how did you get this role?”

“Well, I’m a member of the Bravo! Club, the opera booster club, and a couple weeks ago, someone posted an email saying that the SF Opera needed some men for supernumerary position in this opera.  I thought that would be a fun thing to do, so I replied.

“Actually, they said no, claiming I was too short.  Then they said yes when they didn’t get enough people.  So here I am.  How about you?”
“Oh, we’re part of the chorus.  It’s almost a full time position.  I have a real estate job in addition to this.  I love to sing and C__ and I enjoy coming here to sing and getting all dressed up.”

“So what’s with the question about gayness?” I asked.

“Oh, you must have noticed.  Most of the other extras are gay.  We were just playing a game of deciding whether the new boy is gay or not.” D__ replied.

“Actually, I have no idea if anyone is gay or not.  Are you?” I countered.  It was only my first day, so I wasn’t scoping out people on their sexuality.

D__ looked at me with a slight shock, but then smiled at the faux-offense that my question provoked.  “Not too many of the women in the talent part are gay.  I’m not.  Nor C__.”

Our conversation lasted another hour or so, talking about the inside stories of the behind the scenes at the San Francisco Opera.  Names flew by me, explaining who not to piss off, who is the control freak, who are the easy-to-get-along-with, who never to cross, and so on.  D__ mentioned this little known legend about the opera house.  Apparently, in the early sixties, one of the extras was involved in a major robbery of a drug lord here in the city and stole millions of dollars.

The money was split into manageable chunks and divvied up to other members of the gang to be hidden until it was safe to get the money.  That is, until the drug lord gave up searching for the money.  This extra, supposedly, either hid some of the cash in the bowels of War Memorial or hid clues to the cash’s whereabouts in War Memorial.  Or maybe it was Herbst Theater next door.  D__ said that she had gone snooping around and have never seen anything resembling clues or signs, but the fanciful story was a fun one to tell newcomers.

We talked about the opera and discussed the merits of it being sung in English instead of the traditional German.  I only know it in German and have listened to this Mozart piece for almost thirty years, so I’m quite familiar with the opera.  C__ was also singing in Attila, as was D__.  The Magic Flute is the last opera of the season.  Verdi’s Rigoletto will begin the following season in September.  Neither D__ nor C__ were slated for that one, but they’re already prepping for chorus rehearsals for Capuleti e i Montecchi and Lohengrin and Tosca to finish out the fall season.

“You need a ride home?” C__ asked, “Where do you live?”

“Nob Hill area,” I replied, “and sure, I’d like a ride.”

“And I’m taking you home, too, right D__?” C__ said.  “We both live in the North Bay.  I’m in San Rafael and D__’s in Tiburon.”

“No, I drove here myself today,” smiled D__, which caused C__ to glare at her with conspiratorial eyes and head twisted askance.

We three walked back toward the opera staffs’ parking lot on Fulton while commenting about the fine summer weather we’re experiencing.  D__ splintered off from us to go to her car while C__ and I walked, now a bit awkwardly, to hers.  C__ drove a BMW, but at the time, I couldn’t tell the model or color, given the darkness setting over us.

C__ has her own e-commerce business which she spends far too much time buying rather than selling, or so she claims.  Suddenly, I noticed were heading down hill on Franklin Street.  “Oops, we just missed the turn to get to my place,” I said.  We were already on Lombard by then.

“Oh, sorry.  How about you come back with me to my place?  You have to work early tomorrow?” C__ offered, slightly speeding up to draw out the correct response from me.

“No, no particular time for work,” I answered, understanding the situation.
“Well then, I’m make you some nice cocktails when we get home, all right?” smiled C__.

Photo: San Francisco War Memorial Opera House,Opening Night of Tosca.


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One Response to The Secret Life Of An Opera Supernumerary

  1. Johanna Bradley November 24, 2012 at 6:49 am #

    Having stayed with this all the way through, I may as well leave a comment. The title intrigued, as intended. I just wish I lived somewhere where there was a possibility …San Fran would be good.

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