Article — From the March 2011 issue
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Article — From the March 2011 issue
My path to that rehearsal room began many years earlier, next door to City Opera at the Metropolitan Opera House, home to the world’s largest opera company. There, at age ten, I attended a Christmas Eve staging of Verdi’s Aïda, which is among the most popular works in the repertory. It is also a vehicle for big companies like the Met to show off, especially in the “triumphal scene” (“Gloria all’Egitto”), in which Egyptian heralds announce their victory while parading captive Ethiopians across the stage. The scene is easily overdone — some companies bring live elephants onstage — and is in fact something of a joke within more refined opera circles, but to an unsophisticated adolescent, it had some of the same power as watching the Death Star explode on-screen.
Ever since that first exposure, I have tried to understand the effect that opera has on me. I have studied, without much success, music theory. I have listened to recordings with libretti and score sheets on my lap. I have read Nietzsche on the “Heracleian power of music,” which “can invest myths with a new and most profound significance.” But I always return to the DeMillean pageantry of that first show. The Met’s staging of the “triumphal scene” stopped short of elephants, but it did include acrobats and dancers and more than a hundred supernumeraries filling out the stage. Because opera depends on spectacle for much of its effect, these extras are vital. At the same time, their job mostly involves standing around and staying out of the way, making up a crowd without actually being noticed. One imagines a tenor or ballerina or bassoonist discovering at an early age a specialized talent and an equivalent passion and following them all the way to the stages and orchestra pits of Lincoln Center. Less clear was the path that would lead to one of those marginal roles, what form the call would take, what manner the choosing.
For years I walked past the New York State Theater on my way to the Met, so I noticed when the renovations began, when the banners went down and City Opera’s season was canceled. During the construction, the company laid off nearly 15 percent of its staff and twice had to raid its endowment in order to survive. I followed this news in the paper, closely at first and then somewhat obsessively. When Gerard Mortier, the company’s new general manager, resigned that November, it seemed doubtful that City Opera would live to reopen its home.
With the Met alive and well just feet away, staging productions worthy of La Scala or the Paris National Opera, I couldn’t say exactly what would be lost if City Opera stopped going about its comparatively modest business. Something more than the survival of one institution seemed at stake. As a native New Yorker, I came to think that the company’s disappearance would be of a piece with the shuttering of independent theaters, the replacement of CBGB with a high-end clothing boutique, the exodus of artistic excitement from the city of my birth — where locals making art for locals have been replaced by corporations making entertainment for tourists. I felt that I had missed being a part of something that, until its existence was threatened, I had barely thought about. And so, when the company staged an eleventh-hour resurgence, with a new director and a drastically shortened season, I decided to seize my chance. I called City Opera and asked to be made a super.
Such roles are sometimes given out to prominent amateurs for a single performance — Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, both opera fans, make the occasional turn as supers at the Washington National Opera — but I wasn’t looking for this kind of one-night walk-on. I wanted to perform in the full run of a production, to attend all the necessary rehearsals, to be a part of the company. I wanted to get some sense of what would be lost if City Opera couldn’t revive itself.
A few weeks later, I got a call from Pascal Nadon, City Opera’s head of public relations at the time. He told me that the season would begin with a production of Hugo Weisgall’s Esther, a relatively new work that tells the story of the biblical queen who protected the Israelites from annihilation at the hands of the Persians. The show would include a full complement of supers, and I would be among them. My role was Jew Number Twelve.
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