“Super” girl: Diary of an Opera Extra (Part 3)

Part 1
Part 2

Opening night went by way too quickly in a blur of candy and baked goods; apparently, it’s common to exchange opening night gifts. One super, Julie Ann, bought us gourmet chocolate bars; Alan gave us individual bags of chocolate chip cookies; Thomas baked muffins; and Michael, the conductor, gave everyone enormous cookies the size of our faces. I had put together bags of candy for my co-supers the night before, thanking God for Party City’s cheap candy bins providing my last-minute gifts. Between the sugar highs and opening night adrenaline, the energy from everyone was palpable as we took our places for the first act.

Being on the Ordway stage, facing a full house, was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. Hearing all of the laughter and applause, even if it wasn’t directed at me, was exhilarating. I beamed out at the audience during the bows, still in shock that I was a part of something this big and beautiful. If you had told me in high school that the next time I’d be on stage would be at the Ordway, I never would have believed you. It was one of the most wonderfully surreal experiences of my life.

All of the shows went without a hitch, save for Thursday, when there was some confusion over when curtain was supposed to fall after the bows and it nearly landed on the principals. I was also lucky enough to have friends and family in the audience three out of the four performances. Most of them enjoyed the show, although my dad determined opera wasn’t really for him (he couldn’t understand why Ariadne was “running away with Jesus”). Still, I was grateful that he, and everyone else, came at all, considering all I really did was walk across the stage a couple times and sat at a table for an hour and a half; I may have had a tiny role, but my family and friends made me feel like a star.

And now it’s over, and I’m a little heartbroken, because I’m not ready to be done. I can’t imagine going a week without getting chills from Erin’s absolutely stunning rendition of “Als ein Gott kam Jeder Gegangen,” (anyone who can hit notes that high while rolling around on top of a piano and make it seem effortless is a complete badass); without being inches away from Andrew, Benjamin, Brad, and David’s hilarious antics and listening to their flawless voices blend perfectly (and accepting the fact that the adorable earworm “Es Gilt, ob Tanzen, ob Singen Tauge” will be stuck in my head for the rest of my life); without Amber and Brian taking my breath away with their rich, full voices, more explosive and thrilling than the fireworks projected behind them at the end of the show; without occasionally glancing into the orchestra pit to see Michael conducting, maniacally waving his arms like a freaking sorcerer, which he basically is, because the music coming out of there is nothing short of magical.

I’m especially going to miss my fellow supers. I’ll miss Austin, Maddy, and Thomas’s boundless, infectious energy, trying to stifle giggles in the wings before our first act entrance. I’ll miss Emily’s razor-sharp sense of humor, from her deadpan observations of the performances to her over-the-top impressions of her grandmother. I’ll miss Julie Ann, Katie, and Stephen’s genuine warmth and kindness, all eager to share their experiences with a newbie like me. I’m going to miss everyone I was lucky enough to get to know this past month. In such an unfamiliar situation, I could have felt so lost and alone and uncomfortable, but everyone I worked with was so friendly and welcoming that it made an already incredible opportunity even more enjoyable.

Hopefully, this won’t be the last time I get to do this. From what I’ve been told, Super opportunities for women are few and far between, since a lot of the parts are things like guards and soldiers and other typically male roles, but I’m still optimistic. The Minnesota Opera is performing Tosca later this season, which has a big crowd scene at one point, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll consider me for that now that I have one show under my belt.  As an opera fan, getting to do something like this, being immersed in this incredible process, isn’t something I can do just once. I don’t care if I’m just an unnamed character in a huge group, a background piece to the real talent, because even then, I feel like a rock star. I feel beautiful. I feel super.

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“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.

“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!

Geek Chic

There was one week in high school-I think it was eleventh or twelfth grade- when I tried to sit alone and read during my lunch period. None of my friends were in my lunch period that term, and while there were classmates I got along with well enough whom I would have felt comfortable sitting with, I decided I would rather spend the twenty minutes of free time I had during the school day to read the Melville short story my favorite English teacher had recommended or the latest installment in the Australian fantasy series a friend had gotten me hooked on. The problem was that people didn’t realize my lunchtime loner status was voluntary. Every single time, someone from a nearby crowded table would inevitably come over and invite me to join them, sympathetically insisting, “You don’t have to sit alone!” And because I didn’t want to seem rude or antisocial, I would reluctantly shut my book and move to their table. It’s definitely a testament to my high school that so many students went out of their way to reach out to some poor, seemingly-friendless dork they didn’t even know, but at the time it was a little frustrating.

Years later, I’m repeating my “nerding in public” habit, and, hilariously enough, it’s at a bar named after my high school’s mascot: Wildcats. The whole place is decked out in the school colors of royal blue and kelly green, its wood-paneled walls plastered with framed photos of sports teams from years past. With all the EHS nostalgia decor, it’s basically like being back in the school cafeteria but with more booze and, surprisingly, fewer interruptions. While a few bar patrons might briefly approach me to ask me what I’m reading (or just to say hi), most people leave me alone with George R.R. Martin or Chuck Palahniuk or Stephen King (which generally helps me fend off the occasional obnoxious frat boy type or overly-friendly old man who doesn’t get the hint that I don’t feel like flirting; it’s easy to shut down any creeps who ask “Hey, cutie, what’s that book about?” by simply answering “MURDER” without looking up from the page).

I know it seems weird to want to be left alone when I voluntarily go to a crowded neighborhood bar. I’m not sure I can adequately explain why I go there rather than just stay at home and read there. Sometimes it’s just because I get a little stir-crazy in my apartment and need a change of scenery. Sometimes it’s because I’m having an amazing hair day and want to go out and have people see how fantastic I look but none of my friends are available to go out with me. Before I moved into my own place, I’d go there on nights when my roommate had a date over and I didn’t want to sit in the living room like an awkward third wheel or shut myself up in my room for hours. More than any of that, though, is that I feel comfortable at Wildcats.  It’s the perfect place to curl up in a tall-backed booth with a good book and a strong drink. The atmosphere is warm and laid back, but it’s lively enough to provide some much-needed background noise. Everyone who works there, from the bartenders to the wait staff, are incredibly friendly and watch out for me on the rare instances when anyone does try to bother me. I’m actually more comfortable spending hours reading at Wildcats than I am at the library.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t just go to this bar to read. I’ve made some really good friends there. I’ve celebrated minor holidays and job promotions with custom-made shots created by Aaron, the sweetest bartender in the world. I’ve embarrassed myself spectacularly singing old school Britney Spears songs at karaoke. But while I can go to any hole-in-the-wall bar to grab drinks with friends or humiliate myself with a microphone, Wildcats is the only one where I feel just as comfortable on my own with my nose in a book as I do in a group of friends. I’ve tried doing it at other bars, but they’ve either been so big that I can’t ignore everything going on around me, or so small that I can’t find a corner to hide in. Wildcats is perfect for my strange, publicly-introverted ways.

I moved recently, so unfortunately I’m not within walking distance of Wildcats anymore, which means I don’t go there as frequently as I used to, but it’s still my favorite bar in Eagan.  I’m always going to appreciate that they not only tolerate my geeky tendencies, but respect them.