Every now and again I like to imagine that my life is a sitcom. And sometimes, just occasionally mind you, I’ll step outside of my comfort zone and make a smallish life decision simply based on whether or not it would make for a good episode.
I thought, “Why not do it? How many people can say they were in the cast of a professional opera?”
I’d watch that episode.
My roommate back then worked for the Dallas Opera. Because the show they were producing at the time was an entirely male cast, they were having a little trouble finding enough available men to fill the stage. I have to be honest, I’d only seen one opera before then and it was pretty dreadful. Maybe y’all have heard of it……De Valkyrie. It’s the Wagner opera with Brunhilda.
Still not familiar?
See if this jogs your memory…….It’s the one where Elmer Fudd has the “speawr and mawgic hewlmet” that Buggs Bunny, disguised in a horn-helmet with pig-tails and riding a ridiculously fat horse, tricks him into relinquishing. Fudd sings the ohhh-so-memorable chant,
“Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!”
Ahhhhh, there it is. Now you know which opera I’m talking about. (I never claimed to have “high-brow” readers)
Anyway. If you’ve never seen an Opera before, I don’t recommend Wagner to start with. De Valkyrie is the second of 4 excruciatingly long operas based on the none-too-fascinating topic of Norse mythology. (Insert big eye roll) Also, It’s a bit like seeing the Empire Strikes Back……without ever seeing A New Hope or Return of the Jedi. But not even remotely as interesting. There’s a reason that Hitler played Wagner over the loudspeakers at concentration camps.
Back to my story,
My opera was Billy Budd by Benjamin Britten. It’s based on the Herman Melville story about a young muscular sailor whose hanged after his homo-magnetism leads him to accidentally kill his Master at Arms with one punch.
I was to be a supernumerary……a “climber” they called it.
In the opera world, supernumeraries are non-speaking/non-singing roles. They mostly fill the stage in crowd scenes. I wasn’t supposed to sing, I’m hardly a trained professional opera singer…….but of course, I was singing anyway. Anyone who’s ever been in a car with me for more than 5 minutes knows that I was most certainly singing. I can’t control it. I think it might be a form of turrets.
My costume was a pair of grey linen Capri pants and a belt. That’s was all. No shirt, no shoes, not even a jaunty sailor cap. Some of the other “climbers” we’re given head-wraps or gauntlets, but I wasn’t even that lucky. After about 10 of the guys cut their feet, we were given espadrilles to wear so we’d stop leaving bloody footprints on the stage……….but still no shirts. The wardrobe department assured me that it was more historically appropriate for me to be shirtless………but they had no comment about how historically accurate it was for 19th century sailors to wear espadrilles. So there I was, onstage for two-thirds of the production, shirtless and in karate shoes, nipples exposed to the world. When I wasn’t scrubbing the deck, climbing rope ladders, or carrying a spear….. I spent the rest of my stage-time crouching behind other dudes in crowd scenes hiding my “fondness for Tex-Mex” that was hanging over the waistband of my Capris…..
The scope of the production was beautiful. The music, the sets, the lighting……just beautiful.
If I wasn’t much of an opera fan before this experience….I certainly am now.
I found a few pictures from a recent production in Los Angeles. Pretty similar to the one I was in. (Notice the espadrilles on the extras)
It was quite a commitment. Every night from 7 to about 10 we rehearsed, 3 weeks at an unairconditioned rehearsal studio and then a week at the Fair Park theater on a hydraulic stage. The 3-hour show had 2 dress-rehearsals, and then 4 performances.
Some members of the Dallas Boys Choir were in the production too as cabin boys. Only they were being paid to sing. I think they were all about 10 to 12 years old. On the night of our final performance, at the end of the 5 weeks of work, we got our paychecks. The boys were thrilled to get checks for $150. Just thrilled.
Because I wasn’t a paid singer, and just a supernumerary, my check was only $120.
Let me save you from doing the math on your own……that comes out to 80 cents an hour.
It wasn’t about the money for me anyway.
I was just hoping that the whole experience would make for a good episode.
If I really was living in a TV show….
I think it would have been one of the highest rated episodes of my life.