The indispensable and dedicated extras of opera
KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/For The Globe and Mail
They can be seen playing villagers, party-goers, and soldiers on the opera stage. John Allemang reflects on the dozen times he has stepped on stage as a supernumerary – essentially an extra – and the challenges in his latest role.
Photography by Kevin Van Paassen for The Globe and Mail
This is why I got into opera.
I'm lying under the steeply sloped stage at the Four Seasons Centre, trapped head-to-head in a cramped crawl space with three other supers, as we're known in the operatic trade, for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with superiority.
Under the leadership of the fifth member of our tight little team, a dancer named Alex who exudes a finger-tipped grace that ought to be impossible in these harsh, immobilized conditions, we are ready to simulate fire in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Wagner's Siegfried.
A few minutes before, we were summoned from our dressing rooms to the stage-left holding area just beyond the view of an audience caught up in the saga of our fearless hero, who will forge a sword, slay a dragon and find love over five otherworldly hours.
Time passes slowly in Wagner. But when the assistant stage manager gives the word, we move quickly and efficiently to our positions. One by one, we duck our heads as low as possible and crawl through a maze of dark, body-sized passages past members of the production team who help set up our subterranean berth and direct us through the moment-to-moment intricacies of the coming scene. The first time I tried out this unforgiving circuit, in a test to see which of us supers was small enough, agile enough and demented enough to take on this choice role, I was immediately reminded of the hellish tunnel in the film The Great Escape, the one that drove Charles Bronson mad.
We all eventually converge, like five points on a head-centred compass, at a single, claustrophobic spot beneath a small circular opening in the stage. This hole represents a fire-pit, the forge where Siegfried will fashion an invincible death-dealing sword out of shiny metal fragments that are the shattered remains of an epic weapon from the previous opera in Wagner's Ring Cycle, Die Walkure. Because the stage is sloped, we would be visible to the audience and destroy the illusion of abstract fieriness crafted by director François Girard if we weren't garbed all in black: a black balaclava covering our faces (and the safety glasses we wear just in case), arm-length black gloves, a black tank top and sweatpants, even black knee-pads for the rough, wobbly crawl to our final resting place.
And then suddenly, wonderfully, it's showtime: When the cue comes, we strip off our gloves, inelegantly push them down the front of our sweatpants, shove our legs against the closest support beam and begin to transform our rising hands into a unity of moving fire. Peering through the tight mesh of the balaclava, we sync the undulating motions of 10 arms with Stefan Vinke, our hugely energized and encouraging Siegfried, as he stares down and directs the darting of the flames using broad sweeping gestures, bellows-like exhalations of breath, an almost fiendish cackling that makes us chuckle, and tenor heroics of growing exuberance that match the swelling sounds of the outsized COC orchestra.
For a full 22 minutes, lying on our backs in what are arguably the best seats in the house, reaching up and across to a central meeting-point of red-lit flame (the rigging for the lights digs into our shoulders, not that we have time to notice in our state of pain-denying exhilaration), we waft our hands in rhythmic waves, sparking our fingers in sudden jumps as Stefan bangs the sword fragments together, occasionally reminding each other in urgent whispers to slow down our collective gestures. "It's like you're moving through molasses," assistant choreographer Stephen Cota told us in the rational calmness of the mirrored backstage rehearsal hall. But Siegfried's sword-forging excitement is as infectious as the inspirational music he's singing at a massive, orchestra-transcending volume just a few inches from our ears, and sometimes, caught up in the incomparable, orgiastic, operatic moment, we forget to be fire and become fans.
Like discovering wine
Fandom at some level has to be the reason we've signed on as supers – short for supernumerary, a very fancy word for extra, which is the last thing we consider ourselves to be when we're sweating under the stage and sacrificing our bodies to one of the greatest and strangest of the arts.
I didn't grow up with opera. In the new Toronto suburbs of my youth, the horrifying jauntiness of My Fair Lady was the only theatrical vocal music I knew. When I made a failed attempt at drum lessons as a 13-year-old, I heard some distant scales being sung at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music that sounded quite disturbing, but apart from the choir at our Lutheran church and an unwelcome invitation to a friend's sister's performance in The Mikado, formal singing didn't exist – certainly not as a pleasure.
So what brought me round? I can look back and find a number of personal counterparts to my maturing love of opera's bigness, its disciplined perfection, its unconventionality in a conforming world, its status as a refuge for people who don't fit in (particularly forceful women with loud voices and strong feelings), its alluring connections with other languages, other cultures, other histories. I didn't carry around simplistic stereotypes of opera being just for the rich, or being limited to the antics of Bugs Bunny cartoons. I was listening to John Coltrane, humming the Elizabethan songs of John Dowland, hitchhiking across North America, studying Greek, cooking head cheese, and running up hills for fun as a dissatisfied, questing teenager and twentysomething. Opera when I finally found it had just as much to offer me.
My mother used to listen to a CBC show called Gilmour's Albums, where the host would play the big hits of opera alongside Bob Newhart comedy routines as if there was nothing special about the unlikely juxtaposition. I'd find myself humming the famous duet from Bizet's Pearl Fishers just because I liked the heroic passion of two blended male voices, and bought into the old-school enthusiasm that Clyde Gilmour, a newspaper movie critic, could bring to this seemingly foreign art form. I started to do some acting at school where collective singing was part of the mix, and the loss of inhibition that stagework offered, this opportunity to become someone other than my ordinary, disenchanted self, was potent.
I moved to England to study. My university pals faithfully attended the touring opera that passed through town as if it were a normal thing to do. I went to Paris with a girlfriend who insisted we see the famous Chagall ceiling at the opera-house. I hadn't realized this meant seeing a show as well, but as a result my first experience of live opera was Verdi's rarely seen Sicilian Vespers. By the time the bracing overture ended, I was hooked.
It was like discovering wine, and I probably went too far too fast in trying to become an expert, an instant sophisticate. With a friend from Oxford, I'd buy cheap obstructed-view seats at Covent Garden in London, and learned how to scurry down from our post in the gods to a nearby pub for a pint or two at intermission, just like a regular.
Back in Toronto, I tried to become a journalist, and drawing on my makeshift expertise, wrote the occasional article about the Canadian Opera Company, where I learned about supering. I put my name in, and got measured – the key to being a super, because in the end it's not about how you look or how talented you are, but whether you fit the costumes. I even decided to take singing lessons, thinking I might as well try to become an opera star since I wasn't going to make the NHL or write for The Globe and Mail. I got to the point where I sang songs by Cole Porter, John Dowland and Franz Schubert to friends and family at my music-class show. If nothing else, I'd faced down a few fears.
And that might have been that, except that when I returned to London, and soon realized I was getting nowhere, the COC suddenly summoned me to be a villager in a production of Massenet's Werther. It was 1979. A new life as a super had begun.
'Are you nuts?'
That's not really how my story ends. I did Werther, which led to Verdi's Otello, which I performed in the day after getting married. That marriage led directly to my 27-year break from superdom. After my success as a storm-fearing citizen of Cyprus and drunk carouser in Otello, I was invited to super in Bellini's Norma, which was to star the great Joan Sutherland. I felt as if I'd made it to the top, if only as a super.
My wife was in the advanced stages of pregnancy. I foolishly asked if she could attend all our rehearsals, so I'd know the moment she went into labour. This request did not go down well. I decided I had to quit. But years later, telling stories to my daughter as we walked through Italy, having exhausted every other strand of my life, I talked about being a super. She, too, was disenchanted with the world as commonly defined (it's in the genes, obviously) and immediately set out to be measured. When she got home, she asked if I was interested, and within a few days we were both cast in Beethoven's Fidelio as ruthless interrogators in a Kafkaesque dystopia. My singing career may have gone nowhere, but I now got to open a COC opera by descending a seemingly infinite ladder carrying an armful of interrogation files. It was pure bliss.
We don't sing in our operas, it should go without saying. That's a feat best left to the professionals, who in this production of Siegfried are the finest in the world at what they do. Every now and then a naïve, first-time super will get caught up in the fun and start humming along to the Toreador song in Carmen or the Anvil Chorus in Trovatore, and corrective retribution will swiftly follow – a stage manager or a veteran super makes it all too clear that our job is to shut up and serve others.
It's a humbling and ennobling experience at the same time, which has to be why I enjoy it more than almost anything I've done in my life. I'm in the presence of recognizable greatness, but I'm also instrumental in making it come to being on a scale of sound and spectacle that can't be matched in the more subdued, reasonable parts of the world I normally occupy. This feeling of controlled frenzy isn't all that far from the visceral experience of playoff baseball in a packed ballpark, except that I'm not just a spectator, but actually on the field, playing the game I'm watching.
That's one comparison. But when I'm hemmed in under the stage, concentrating on our collective work and denying the pain with an intensity so heightened that I have to tell myself to breathe, it also reminds me of being stretched out in the dentist's chair, willing time to go by in an altered state of complete mental displacement – albeit with much better music.
There are 23 of us crazies in Siegfried, and I still remember the first rehearsal a month ago when our choreographer, Donna Feore, knowing what lay ahead, shook her head and said to the mismatched collection of retired teachers, martial-arts instructors, landscape architects, part-time judges, hospital administrators, physics students studying the origins of the universe and moonlighting journalists, "Are you nuts? Why do you want to do this?"
It was an early test of our commitment, but also a welcome-to-the-club kind of greeting that set the tone for the long hours and hard demands that followed. COC supers get paid $13 for a rehearsal and $14 for a show, which essentially covers the cost of downtown parking and a vending-machine snack – although you learn early on that eating in costume is a firing offence. When you become a super, you give up your weeknights and weekends and, in Siegfried, even a number of weekdays – try telling your manager, as I foolishly did last week, that you can't complete a project on time because you're exhausted from working on your fire hands.
As opening-night approaches, I’m still not confident about the all-important music cues and am losing sleep over the tightly choreographed movements in Act III that I continue to mess up.
'Was that you?'
The Act I forge scene is just a small part of the supers' contribution to Siegfried – and the least demanding, it turns out. In Act II, we have to lie inert on the hard stage for the better part of an hour and awaken just long enough to slither forward and share the extended death throes of the dragon Fafner – voiced with stage-rumbling resonance by the bass Phillip Ens, but collectively played by our mesmerizing dancers in a tiered network of wires and harnesses that oscillate graphically as Siegfried repeatedly thrusts home his magic sword and the lowly supers writhe alongside.
"It's easy," said the COC's co-ordinator of supers, Elizabeth Walker, a few months ago when she first described to me our potential roles in Siegfried. "All you have to do is lie on stage for a while. And then you get up and form the ring of fire."
I needed some luring. I'd never been a big fan of Wagner's intellectualized epics, much preferring down-to-earth, conventionally beautiful and sentimental Italian operas like Puccini's La Bohème, and the everyday kind of supering activities that went with them – being a swaggering soldier, a market-square dilettante, a costumed version of me.
Lying on stage turns out to be the toughest thing I've ever done in the 12 operas I've been a part of. When you've goofed in your set-up, your arm goes numb 10 minutes in, and the feeling becomes unbearable, there's nothing you can do but wait it out and discover what you've been missing in Wagner all these years – such as the enticing beauty of Jacqueline Woodley's forest-bird song floating above our pained, prone bodies as she beckons Siegfried toward his Brunnhilde. Although to be honest, I also find my attention wandering off to the prospect of beer and the imagined aromas of freshly baked bread that await me when I get home at 11:30 p.m. and settle in to a late sandwich and a calming crossword. In this kind of prolonged drift, it's all too easy to fall asleep – the key thing is not to snore or shout out when a vigilant fellow-super suddenly elbows you awake.
A 20-minute break for intermission, and then we're back on the floor for the start of Act III – this time packed tightly together in a brain-shaped configuration, where we represent the disordered fragments of Siegfried's mind. As the act progresses, we roll out across the stage in our low-to-the-ground slithery fashion, contort our way to our feet and collectively emerge as the fiery ring that surrounds the sleeping Brunnhilde – with all of us moving our hands above our heads in harmony (if the show comes off as planned) by staring straight at the audience, but still sneaking a peripheral glance at our neighbour.
Early on in our rehearsals for this extended act of teamwork, I asked Ms. Feore what she looked for in a good super, and she quickly answered, "Body awareness, agility and musicality." I'm pretty sure I've got the first quality from my hockey days of spotting who was open for a pass, away from the play – or my parenting days of trying not to step backwards and trip on a kid's toy. Although my agility will never rival the dancers in our midst – who astonished us one evening with a group performance of German slap-dancing from The Sound of Music – it turns out that I'm an effective slitherer in a show that prizes discreet, low-level movement. But musicality? Epic fail. As opening-night approaches, I'm still not confident about the all-important music cues and am losing sleep over the tightly choreographed movements in Act III that I continue to mess up.
After a few minutes of our strength-sapping display of fire hands, we have to turn on cue, count to eight, take nine slow, encircling paces, each to a 1-2-3-4 count, 16 more to a 1-2 count, then a deliberate walk to our various appointed positions where we all assume different postures at the tinkling of a specific harp cue and set our unmoving gaze on the awakening shape of Brunnhilde for another 15 minutes or so. It was a lot easier when there was someone counting out loud for us in the early rehearsals, but now that darn orchestra is getting in the way.
So I fall back on my dominant skill, body awareness. To maintain the proper look of Wagnerian seriousness, I try very hard not to remember how our Brunnhilde, Christine Goerke, first introduced herself to our group by sliding between the two silk sheets that envelop her hidden body on the stage and announcing, "I'm the filling in the quesadilla." Opera singers, contrary to reputation, are a hoot.
After this, it's dead easy – stand up in a one-by-one sequence if your crossed legs haven't fallen asleep, walk backwards and sideways till you find a prominent underfoot seam at the top of the stage, hang out for another 20 minutes of Siegfried/Brunnhilde rapture, and then disappear one by one to an exact count – I, for example, leave 35 seconds after my departing neighbour surreptitiously taps me, and then tap two more colleagues who will begin their count as I exit.
All that remains is the curtain call, where we get to pretend that some part of the applause is for us, followed by a mad dash to the dressing room to wash off the makeup that nonetheless can linger for days as proof you're living the artist's life, and every now and then a sudden text or e-mail from an opera-going friend – "Was that you in Siegfried? Good thing you didn't knock over the tenor."
'Couldn't do this alone'
I've knocked over a few tenors and baritones and fellow supers in my time, but mainly in the line of duty. In the world of supering, at least in the more realistic roles beyond Wagner's abstractions, men like me often play soldiers and guards. In Donizetti's Roberto Devereux, a fellow soldier and I got to manhandle the lead character, who because of various emergencies and scheduling conflicts was played by four different tenors – each of whom had to be dragged and thrown in a different style depending on their dramatic preferences and aversions to being touched. "You can be more brutal," said our favourite, covered in an array of makeup bruises, just before he hit the stage with an exaggerated thud.
In Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, where my menacing gaze was deployed in a mob riot that disrupts a formal council-chamber meeting, I got to toss chairs and engage in a prolonged fight across the front of the stage that was as tightly choreographed as our rhythmic moves in Siegfried. In Mozart's Idomeneo, my nasty character ripped off the robes covering prisoners attired only in flesh-covered body suits – which would have been a lot more fun if I didn't keep tripping on my armload of robes as I tried to walk haughtily off stage. In the same opera, we soldiers had to lift a host of dead supers onto stretchers, and there was one attention-getting corpse who had the knack of letting his arm slip back off the stretcher just as we tried to hoist him. Even when you're tempted to drop your colleague accidentally on purpose, you have to remember to act professionally and obey the musical timing of your moves, postponing your super revenge for another time.
These little games and improvisations and slip-ups go on constantly during a show – as a super, you learn to roll with whatever happens, because the worst thing you can do is disrupt the logic and progress of the drama. As a Japanese servant in Madama Butterfly, I was meant to be berated for staring disrespectfully at American visitors – but what I didn't expect was to be knocked on the head as my angry overseer got into his part. In the end, my surprise gave way to pleasure. While we're not in this to be stars and egomaniacs, foreground is always better than background.
Well, almost always. In the same show, I was supposed to work my way downstage through the massed chorus and emerge centre-stage to present a ceremonial drinking-cup to Butterfly and her intended. But when I arrived at the appointed spot, knelt down gracefully and offered my tray with a respectful downturned glance, the soprano playing Butterfly that night had altered the established staging and was now standing 10 feet to my right. "What's he doing over there?" she whispered accusingly. I resisted the urge to hop over to her. The screw-up wasn't strictly my fault, but I still felt a sense of shame, like I'd let down the team.
Humility comes with the turf. Opera at times can be like the military or the church in its sense of regimentation and hierarchy, and even when everything seems friendly and easy-going in the rehearsal process, you still need to know that there's no talking back to your superiors, no casting of blame at your colleagues or overruling of directions because you think you know better. You don't. This is how extraordinarily complex shows get put together in a matter of a few weeks, and your job is to do your part and not waste anybody's time or get in anybody's way. In the rest of the world, this could get to be a pain, but in the theatre it works beautifully.
The flip side of all this imposed discipline and order is the powerful feeling you get, at least in a well-run show, that you're part of a team – and that extends to the costume people who fuss over the length of your white Siegfried pyjama bottoms the first day of fittings, the friendly make-up person who tints your complexion a ghostly white and gets to share your innermost thoughts over the course of the show's run, the chatty dresser who makes sure your dirty shirts get washed in time for the next show, the woman who thoughtfully squeezes your cushioned headrest into place under the stage just before the forge scene begins.
I'm not a team person by nature, but the collective purpose of making an opera is one of the pleasures of supering that keeps me coming back, and overrides the occasional agonies of a dragging four-hour rehearsal. And it plays out in the show, when my colleague Liz helpfully squeezes my big toe, which is sticking in her face in Act III's tightly packed mass of bodies, as a cue to start a crucial move, or my neighbour Doug quickly taps my shin in a silent intuitive sign that we need to tighten up our circle as our bodies rise upward, or the forge supers quietly congratulate the group after we've pulled off the 22 minutes of sustained flaming.
As supers, just by the very fact that there is so much overwhelming talent all around us, we're inclined to see our contributions as marginal, our status as lowly. But in Siegfried, I've finally discovered, after a dozen experiences as a hard-working super, that's not the case at all. "It's the combined discipline of the whole cast that adds up to the real theatrical effect," Girard told me. "What matters to me as a professional is commitment." Which we have in excess, no question.
And then he adds something that pleases me inordinately as an opera-loving super trying to turn my fingers into living flame. "The best music we will ever hear is the human voice and the best set we will ever see is the human body."
And when the stresses on that body seem to be pushing it to the limit, I'll be reminded of the conversation I had with our Siegfried, Stefan Vinke. I told him how happy I was to being playing a small part in the forge scene and he immediately interrupted my attempts at being modest. "It's not a small part. My relationship with the fire is real and has to be evident in this production. I couldn't do this alone – I need you just as much as you need me."
The Canadian Opera Company's production of Siegfried runs Jan. 23 to Feb. 14 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.