In For a Penny: It’s a Super Job

Charles Lewis III, working.

Pay no attention to the ninjas on stage.

Pay no attention to the ninjas on stage.

“They played at hearts as other children might play at ball; only, as it was really their two hearts that they flung to and fro, they had to be very, very handy to catch them, each time, without hurting them.”
– Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera

This past weekend had quite a few discussions of Greek Drama pop up on my social media timelines. Yes, they were mainly Olympians-related, with quite a few of our fellow writers either dedicating that time to writing their plays and/or holding developmental readings. But there were quite a few heated discussions about classical Greek plays such as Lysistrata and Medea. The topic of Shakespeare Troilus and Cressida even came up at one point. If you wanted to talk Greek drama, apparently this was the weekend for it.

For my part, I spent Saturday morning at the gates of Troy. I watched as some of the most creative technicians in the Bay Area theatre scene put the finishing touches on the metallic, rusty walls of the city (apparently this version Poseidon was a fan of steam punk). But the real highlight came when I saw the metallurgical effigy that was the Trojan Horse come to life as it moved back and forth on the massive stage of the War Memorial Opera House. My first-ever trip to the opera was in this very opera house in 1989 and my last time on its stage was two years ago as a supernumerary. Although most of my work with them requires me to stand around and do nothing (such as this day, when I was simply a lightwalker), “dull” isn’t the word I’d use to describe my experiences in opera.

For those who don’t know, a “lightwalker” is just a stand-in. They aren’t involved in the actual production, they just stand on stage during rehearsal so that the tech magicians can test the lighting. A “supernumerary” or “super” is the theatrical equivalent to a film extra: you’re meant to be seen, not heard; you get a finely-tailored costume, but not a single line. But when you’re seen it can be quite an experience. When I was a super for the SF Opera’s 2012 production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, I was one of the puppeteers who operated the two-headed Technicolor dragon that appears at the top of the show. I had absolutely no puppeteering experience up to that point, but the director said I looked like I had strong shoulders. It took about eight or ten of us to operate that thing and I was one two guys up front. It was cumbersome and unwieldy, but we found a rhythm and the audience loved it, so I can cross that off my bucket list.

That's me second-from-the-right.

That’s me second-from-the-right.

I feel even more accomplished when I consider the fact that The Magic Flute represents everything I personally love and hate about opera. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a beautiful piece of music and a whimsical piece of theatre; but the story itself is problematic, especially in its latter half. That’s when it suddenly comes off as really sexist (the queen is suddenly made the villain seemingly for no other reason than being a queen) and doubles down on the first half’s uncomfortable racism (the sole Black character, often played in blackface, is an irredeemable thief who is whipped by his master and tries twiceto rape the lead damsel). Have I mentioned this opera considered kid-friendly?

But its grand theatrical elements are what I love about opera. It somehow seems apropos that opera be brought up a week after Allison and Anthony’s trip to the Hoodslam wrestling match was recounted. Opera and wrestling are quite a lot alike: they’re both considered separate elements from “regular” theatre; they’re both defined by their over-the-top style and larger-than-life characters; and they both showcase unique talent that takes years – if not decades – to refine, but that performers seemingly pull off with the greatest of ease. Hell, the only real difference between them is the dichotomy of their perceived audiences, with wrestling considered pandering to the unwashed masses and opera considered a flaunting of bourgeoisie excess. But both are unmistakably theatre and your appreciation for them grows once you’ve had the opportunity to take part.

Which is not to say that I wasn’t already appreciative of opera, quite the contrary. I became fascinated with opera in high school, when my love of Shakespeare led me to seek out operas, symphonies, and ballets based on his work. I remember watching PBS and admiring the flawless skill of divas like Maria Callas and Leontyne Price, but feeling unqualified to say how much I disliked something (I remember despising André Previn’s adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire, but not knowing how to argue it if asked; thankfully, I was never asked). But my tastes began to refine the more I watched. Whenever someone bemoans funding for the arts or public television, tell them that it isn’t there just for you, it’s there for someone you’ve never even thought about.

It was that affinity for opera that led me to stumble upon an opportunity to be a super for the SF Opera. Having done a lot of film extra work, I was used to the idea of just standing around as the important people did their work. But once the stage managers and ADs start giving general directions to the crowd, it becomes apparent who can really take direction and who can’t. Those of us who can – or who just have good shoulders – wind up doing some of the more important non-speaking roles. This might mean wrangling a dragon, this might mean firing a loaded rifle on stage, or it might mean being a dancing zebra in a bacchanalian orgy.

It happens.

It happens.

None of this really prepares you for was awe-inspiring experience of stepping onto the War Memorial stage for the first time. No matter what you’ve seen from the audience, the sheer scale of that stage never really hits you until you’ve actually been on it. The stage itself is like an Olympic-sized field and looking out at the seats makes you think that they extend out forever. And during an actual show, the backstage is truly intimidating. I’ve been in the booth for countless black box theatre productions, but I was truly taken aback by the high-tech walls of lights, numbers, and monitors on either side of the opera stage. It looks more like the control panel of NASA Mission Control, and it’s carried out with the same level of military precision. Add to that the fact that you get your own desk and station, the colorful commentary by the world’s bawdiest co-stars, and the fact that you can gorge yourself on the free catering (which you shouldn’t, because you still have to fit into your costume) then why wouldn’t you want to be part of this?

And yet, the most memorable experience I’ve had working with the opera is one in which I was reminded why the only difference between opera and “regular” theatre is one of perception. I was a super for the 2012 production of Puccini’s Tosca, an opera I enjoy quite a lot. I was really excited because I had more to do than ever before. I was one of Scarpia’s guards, so I appeared in every scene – I intimidated the parishioners, I manhandled Cavaradossi, and I was part of the firing squad at the end. But what I remember most is different interpretations of the title role. Tosca was alternated between divas Angela Gheorgiu and Patricia Racette – both very nice people for world-renowned superstars. Gheorgiu’s casting was a major selling point and every night she got a huge applause on her first appearance alone. Given her powerful pipes, it’s not hard to see why. But Patricia Racette – whose voice is also pretty damn intimidating – always approached the character from the point-of-view of an actor. She wanted to know the motivation for each of her actions and worked to make each movement organic, rather than just scripted.

I remember watching her from backstage when we had the matinee for middle and high school students. It’s often hard to hear anything over the music and tech cues backstage, but I distinctly remember when Racette’s Tosca made the decision to kill Cavaradossi. She’s surprised when she finds the knife on the table, and when she hid it behind her back, I heard audible gasps from the audience. You could hear the tension rising as Cavaradossi made his way over to her. And when she began stabbing, there were the sort of cheers you only expect from hearing your country just won 50 gold medals.

Now THIS is kid-friendly.

Now THIS is kid-friendly.

It’s one of those moments when I had to take a step back and say “Okay, now I remember why I do theatre.”

And that’s what brings me back time and again. Not just as a super, lightwalker, or even an audience members. Not just for opera, SHN musicals, or even black box productions. Not even for experience, money, or points on my resume. I love doing theatre because I love being a part of something that can genuinely move you. And I love being a part of opera, even as just a super, because it represents everything it could (and should) be. It’s grand in its scope, yet capable of some incredibly intimate moments of truth. In a year when I’m not quite sure when I’ll ever actually be on stage again, spending this past Saturday watching a mechanical Trojan Horse reminded me of some of the best things this art form is capable of.

Plus, I might get to shoot a guy again. You never know.

The Napoleanic look is in this season.

The Napoleanic look is in this season.

Charles is curious as to what the public’s reaction will be to the Trojan Horse, especially coming on the heels of the whale in Moby Dick. To find out more about the SF Opera and volunteer for supernumerary work, visit their homepage at http://www.sfopera.com.

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3 comments on “In For a Penny: It’s a Super Job

  1. Fun post about something I knew nothing about!

  2. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    In which I give a behind-the-scenes look at the world of professional opera and discover a subtle performance that reminds me why I love theatre so much.

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