Article — From the March 2011 issue

Supernumerary

Onstage with the People’s Opera

The New York State Theater was built from travertine limestone, which has countless troughs and holes, and an agreeable roughness that gives the edifice the appearance of geologic fact. Designed by Philip Johnson for the 1964 World’s Fair, the theater is an enormous, boxy thing that would impose dramatically upon its surroundings were its surroundings not the rest of Lincoln Center, the iconic high-culture strip mall on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. In 2008, the theater’s two tenants, New York City Opera and New York City Ballet, agreed to close it for a yearlong renovation, during which time it was renamed for David Koch, the billionaire philanthropist and former libertarian vice-presidential candidate whose $100 million gift paid for most of the work. When I visited the Koch before its reopening in the fall of 2009, the theater was enclosed by a chain-link fence, and a trailer sat next to the fountain in the Lincoln Center courtyard. The stage door was hidden below street level, at the foot of a short flight of concrete steps.

Inside, a security desk and a row of metal lockers in notable disrepair provided the feel of a public high school in a marginally dangerous neighborhood. I gave my name to the guard and told him I was there to rehearse with City Opera. Without looking up, he directed me to the fifth floor by way of an elevator that, like everything else in immediate sight, seemed untouched by Koch’s largesse. Upstairs, I followed signs reading esther rehearsal — supers, with an arrow pointing down the hallway. I eventually emerged into a dance studio lined by ballet barres and mirrored walls.

At one end of the room stood a large middle-aged man outfitted with a perfect helmet of white hair, a black turtleneck, and a pair of iron-creased jeans. Behind him stood a small, officious-looking group holding clipboards and speaking solemnly to one another. Milling nervously at the other end of the room were about two dozen people, a crowd that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a post office or an emergency room. Several appeared to varying degrees infirm, and one older man had a large bruise covering much of his forehead and one cheek. I took my place beside a handsome Hispanic man in a tailored suit, a fragilelooking, light-skinned black woman in her seventies, and a white guy in a loose-fitting black T-shirt, with the straight, shoulder-length blond hair of a rhythm guitarist in a bar band.

These were the opera’s non-singing players, the supernumeraries. How I came to be one of them will take some telling.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 13

More from Christopher Beha:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content