“Super”girl: Diary of an Opera Extra (Part 2)

If you haven’t already, check out part one here!

These past few weeks have gone by too quickly. Tonight is opening night, and while I am so excited, I’m a little sad to think that it’s already almost over; by  next weekend, we’ll be wrapping up. On the bright side, I’ve chronicled the whole rehearsal process, so at least I can revisit the memories I’ve made through this experience.

For a little background, here’s a brief summary of Ariadne auf Naxos. It’s basically an opera within an opera (OPERACEPTION…I’m so sorry). The richest man in Vienna is throwing a huge party with three forms of entertainment: an opera, a comedy act, and a fireworks display. However, shortly before the entertainment is supposed to start, the performers are told the opera and the comedy troupe will have to go on at the same time because the host wants the fireworks show to start promptly at nine o’ clock. The first act is the prologue- the preparations for the party and the performers butting heads- and the second act is the opera itself, and the hilarity that ensues from combining the two groups.  Needless to say, this was a really fun opera to be a part of.

September 3rd, 2015
I have first-day-of-school butterflies in my stomach as I arrive at the Minnesota Opera Center in Minneapolis about half an hour before rehearsal actually starts.  Per the instructions in the welcome email, I find my mailbox outside of the rehearsal studio and grab the Super handbook, emergency contact form, Ariadne synopsis, and a  green laminated name tag that I clip to my sleeve. I walk into the rehearsal studio, where I introduce myself to Alan, the stage director.
“Did I meet you at the auditions?” he asks.
“Uh, no. I applied online,” I reply, realizing that, until right now, I hadn’t even considered that this was actually an acting gig and the other supers-the ones who auditioned- are probably people who act professionally, and my nerves double, because theater people intimidate the hell out of me. I guess it’s because most of the ones I’ve met have such big personalities, are so energetic and outgoing, while I’m kind of socially awkward and shy and reserved, so I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable around them. As sophomoric as it seems, I’m scared I won’t fit in.

Fortunately, my anxiety is completely unfounded, because once they arrive, I discover the other supers are all, well…super (again, I’m so sorry). Some of them, like Katie and Thomas, have been supers for other Minnesota Opera productions and are happy to talk about their experiences with me and let me know what to expect. One of the other supers, Tom, is actually a former classmate from high school, so it’s comforting seeing a familiar face. Several others are actors or involved in theater/music in other ways but are new to the opera, so it’s nice not being alone in that.

Tonight, we’re just working on the first act, which seems simple enough. I play a waitress, and all I have to do is cross the stage and set a tray of empty plates on a table at the beginning, then carry a tray of precariously-stacked fake desserts off stage, which is a little more complicated (at least for someone coordination-impaired like me), because I have to sort of balance the tray on my shoulder, but Thomas patiently shows me how to maneuver it less awkwardly.

The principal singers show up for the second half of rehearsal, which is easily the highlight of the evening.  These people practically explode with these huge, gorgeous voices, and they make it look so effortless, and God, I can’t believe I get to listen to this for a month! The one downside is that don’t have any idea what they’re singing since it’s all in German, and all I can understand is “today” and “firework.” It makes me regret not taking more than the one semester of it I took in college, but it’s not like I could have anticipated that an opportunity like this would come up: “Gee, maybe I should keep studying this language in case I’m cast as an extra in a Strauss opera eight years from now.

September 10, 2015
Tonight, we’re rehearsing the second act, where I play a party guest; literally all I have to do is react to the opera and pretend to drink champagne…which is a lot more uncomfortable than I anticipated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still awesome, because we have the best seats in the house- there will even be donors on stage with us, people who paid serious money to do exactly what we’re being paid to do- but it’s also an hour and twenty minutes of me worrying about what my face looks like, how fake and forced my laughter seems. Alan insists that we have to be really expressive, that we can’t be over-the-top enough, but I still feel ridiculous. On top of that, the super stagehands have to roll a massive piano on and off stage several times, only a few inches away from me at most, so I’m slightly concerned I might get run over. For anyone who watches this, while I’m smiling and laughing at the antics during the first half of the act, this is what is actually going through my mind:

My face hurts from smiling and we’re only five minutes in.
I don’t think a normal adult would be laughing this much at clowns.
Should I actually be putting my lips to the champagne glass? I don’t know where it’s been, but I’m pretty sure it looks like I’m spilling champagne on my chin the way I’m doing it now.
I’m totally going to be run over by this piano at some point during the run of this show. I’ve never broken a bone in my life and now I’m going to have my foot crushed in the least badass way possible. “Hey, why are you wearing a cast? ” “…Opera accident.”

Friday, September 18
It’s our first night rehearsing at the Ordway! I join the other girls in our tiny dressing room (seriously, ours is a closet compared to the guys’ massive one-what the hell?) where I don my act one waitress costume: black pants and a white button-up shirt with a black collar. I have never felt less sexy; the waist of the pants cuts off right below my boobs-or my boobs hang just above my pants waist (it’s like the “glass half full versus glass half empty” argument, except both perspectives suck). At least the other waitresses and kitchen staff have equally unflattering outfits, so I’m not alone. The hair and makeup people don’t really have any instructions for the supers besides telling the wait staff to have our hair pulled back, so we have to figure out our makeup on our own. I didn’t think to bring any (besides a few tubes of lipstick buried in my purse) since the last email didn’t mention it, but Katie is nice enough to share hers with me. Once we’re done, we run down to the stage where the rest of the cast is gathered, and I feel the same dopey grin from the first day of rehearsal cross my face as I look out into the house: all champagne-colored lighting and red velvet seats and elegance. The last time I was here, I was sitting in the back of the gallery, and now I’m on stage, and I’m once again reminded of how unbelievably lucky I am for this opportunity.

The Ordway stage takes some getting used to after spending two weeks in the rehearsal space in Minneapolis; we have to navigate our way around set pieces and behind-the-scenes equipment. Alan warned us to watch out for the boom lights in the wings, and because I am not a theater person at all, I assumed he just meant don’t run into or trip over them; I did not realize he meant “these lights burn with the white-bright fire of hell and will blind you if you’re not careful about where you’re looking” until, when carrying my dessert tray off stage, my eyes are assaulted by an intense blaze and suddenly I can’t see anything. I stop abruptly, trying to get my eyes to adjust, and feel Austin’s tray bump into my back. “Crap! Sorry, I’m sorry!” I squeak, stumbling in the direction I think the tray table is. Fortunately, we’re far enough in the wings when this happens, so I don’t think anyone in the house noticed the slight traffic jam I caused.

I head back up to the dressing room and change into my act two party guest costume, which is…baffling. All of the other female party guests have black dresses, but I have black slacks, a black turtleneck tank top, and a big, sheer gold blouse that goes down to about mid thigh with a matching belt. It’s not bad; it just seems out of place. It looks like something a super villain/mad scientist would wear; this is my formal lab coat! Nolan, one of the party guests at my table, says it has a “Dick Tracy” vibe as well (I suppose it does kind of look like a trench coat), so apparently my character is a detective as well as a super villain. I mean, the party we’re attending is being thrown by the richest man in Austria, so he’s bound to have some eccentric friends.

The last challenge of the evening shows up toward the end of the show: Bacchus’s arrival. He is wheeled on stage in a little clear plastic boat (which carried ice and champagne bottles in the first act), and Alan has told us ladies to act like he’s, like, sooooo  totally dreamy, omigawd (not Alan’s exact wording, but that was the vibe he was going for). Until now, that hasn’t really been a challenge, because Brian, the singer playing Bacchus, is very attractive. However, this is the first time we’ve seen him in his full costume: a long, green robe with leopard print trim, a flowing brown Jesus wig, and a crown of leaves and bunches of grapes. I’m smiling so hard I think I’m going to sprain my face, because that’s the only way I can stop myself from bursting into giggles. I know opera costumes are elaborate and over-the-top, but it’s just so silly-looking. There’s a short break, and Tom immediately booms “COME AND GET TO KNOW ME BETTAH, MAN!” reminding me who Bacchus looks like: the Ghost of Christmas Present from A Christmas Carol. And now that’s all I’ll be able to see every time we get to this scene. Hoo, boy.

Saturday, September 19th
They’ve adjusted the way they roll out the piano in act two, so I’m in less danger of being run over, although now one of the super stagehands accidentally grazes my boob with his butt every time they pass me, which is a little awkward. Erin, who plays Zerbinetta, accidentally kicks her shoe into the orchestra pit, but the pit is mercifully devoid of the orchestra until Tuesday, so fortunately there aren’t any flautist or violinist or tubist (tubaist? …tuba player) casualties.

Tuesday, September 22nd
Tonight is our first night rehearsing with the orchestra, and I get chills hearing the first few notes, because they are so damn good. Hearing the swell of the instruments combine with the enormous, beautiful voices makes the experience feel more real.

Because I’m completely hopeless in doing my hair (if I want to look fancy I just flat iron my hair into submission), Emily is kind enough to do it for me, twisting my hair into a sleek top-knot, and I’m once again reminded that my co-supers are the nicest people ever.

They’ve moved my chair slightly upstage and toward the wings in act two, so now I don’t have to worry about being run over by a piano or accidental butt/boob grazing, although now I’m a little concerned that they’re slowly trying to push me offstage.

Thursday, September 24
Tonight is our final dress rehearsal/social media preview. I’m excited that we’ll finally have an audience, although it’s a relatively small group. My chair in act two is pushed back a little farther, and I’m pretty sure that by opening night I’ll actually be sitting out in the service hallway instead of onstage.

The show goes pretty smoothly, with the exception of  right before Bacchus’s entrance, when the conductor stops the orchestra and requests that they pick up the tempo. It’s a bit jarring, but if that’s the only interruption in a two-and-a-half hour-long show, I think we’re doing pretty well.

When we line up for bows at the end of the show, I can’t stop smiling. I can’t believe that in just two days, I’m going to be standing right here, staring out at a packed house. I may just be an extra, a living set piece, but up here, right now, I feel like a huge deal. Saturday night can’t come soon enough.

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