“Super”girl: Diary of an Opera Extra (Part 1)

I got my first taste of opera when I was about five years old, when my mom bought me this cassette tape of a kid’s version of The Magic Flute. Granted, that particular opera is already pretty kid-friendly, but this imagining left out some of the darker aspects like Pamina contemplating suicide, and the huge snake trying to eat Tamino who the queen’s attendants kill is adapted into friendly dragon who gains the power of speech and joins the heroes on their quest. It was cheesy and goofy and I loved it- but the part that stuck with me the most, the part I never forgot growing up, was the Queen of the Night’s famous aria. I had never heard music like that before and was completely enchanted. This was something new and magical, this voice producing impossibly high, crystalline notes cascading over lush orchestration that resonated with me years later. I was captivated.

Over twenty years later, that tape is long gone-either buried under the stairs of my parents’ house with my other childhood memories, or sold in a garage sale along with other early-nineties relics, or just thrown out- but the spark it ignited in me has been fanned into a fiery enthusiasm thanks to the Minnesota Opera. After going to the company’s production of Anna Bolena with a friend who wanted to cross “going to the opera” off her bucket list, I’ve seen a handful of shows over the past few years (including a beautifully imaginative production of the opera that started it all for me), and God, I love it. I love everything about it. I love the detailed sets, the elaborate costumes, and of course, the enormous, breathtakingly gorgeous voices and  instruments that fill the auditorium to the farthest corners of the house. But as much as I’ve enjoyed the productions, I’ve always thought the same thing, squinting at the stage from the back of the gallery or craning my neck to read the projected subtitles from the mezzanine boxes: It would be incredible to be a part of this.

However, I never actually thought it would be a real possibility, for one glaringly obvious reason: I am not an opera singer. I was a decent singer in high school-by high school standards- and I can hold my own at any dive bar’s karaoke night, but that hardly qualifies me to be on the stage of a major concert hall; a prima donna I am not. That’s why I was so excited when, a little over a month ago, the Minnesota Opera Facebook page posted a casting call for supers, or supernumeraries: non-speaking actors; extras. “No experience necessary!” the application advertised. It was perfect. I could have the thrill of being on stage, being a part of something huge, without the stress and terror of  having attention solely on me. For the most part, the application asked costuming questions: height and weight; hip, waist, and bust measurements; dress, shoe, and bra sizes; allergies to any types of fabric. I wrapped my mom’s measuring tape around me, grimacing at the numbers. They requested a headshot; I uploaded a selfie I had taken at my cousin’s wedding, where someone who actually knew what they were doing had applied my makeup. There was a small section asking for any theater/music experience or special skills; I mentioned being in the chorus of a couple shows in high school and my fluency in Spanish, but because the application was for a silent role, I doubted this experience would play into their decision.

I didn’t expect to hear anything back, because I didn’t think I had a chance at anything where the decision apparently hinged solely on my appearance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to start wearing a paper bag over my head anytime soon, but I also don’t think I have the right look for any type of performing arts. I could stand to lose some weight. I show too much gum when I smile, my two front teeth are a little too big, and I have a slight cross-bite that years of childhood orthodontia never completely corrected. I have a premature grey streak in my hair that, on good days, I joke makes me look like Rogue from X-Men, but mostly just makes me look like the Bride of Frankenstein. Between my complete lack of theater experience and underwhelming personal appearance, I did not have high hopes.

So obviously, I was shocked and delighted when I received an email last month saying I might be a good fit for this season’s opening production, Ariadne auf Naxos. I should also mention that I received this news in the most anti-opera location I can think of: We Fest. I was dirty from camping out for the past three days, I had a healthy Jack Daniels buzz going, and the majority of the music I had been listening to for the past seventy-two hours involved a lot of twangy voices singing about getting laid on the tail of a pickup truck, so the idea of sharing the Ordway stage with these incredible, internationally-recognized singers was unbelievable- not that it stopped me from excitedly texting my parents and best friend and stumbling back to my campsite to tell anyone who would listen about the opportunity.

They needed me to come in for a fitting before they could officially offer me the role, since they were working from existing costumes for the supers and needed to make sure they had something that worked for me, so less than a week later, I took the light rail into downtown Minneapolis (because I’m a complete wimp about driving there) and walked to the Minnesota Opera Center where the costume department was housed. I met with two of the costumers who measured me in detail-wrapping measuring tape around my hips, waist, bust, head, arms, and legs, measuring my height and inseam, tracing my feet, and having me stand in a corner where they took a picture of me to send to the casting director. “You’re very symmetrical,” one of the costumers said approvingly as she rolled up the measuring tape. “Uh…thanks!” I replied with an awkward laugh, blushing at the unconventional but appreciated compliment. She informed me that the casting director should contact me within a day to let me know if I got the part, but she was pretty confident that I would. Still, I spent the next several hours anxiously checking my phone and refreshing my inbox-until the casting director emailed me an official offer for the role of “waitress” in the first act and “party guest” in the second act. I accepted immediately.

As you can tell from the title, I plan on chronicling this experience in multiple parts (since I feel like even this intro is running a bit long): the second part will be about the rehearsal process, and the third part will be about the actual performances. The entire process, from rehearsal to closing night, is only about a month long, and I want to savor every second of it. This is such an unusual, unexpected opportunity, and I’m so grateful for it.

More to come soon!

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