Article — From the March 2011 issue


Onstage with the People’s Opera

( 3 of 13 )

Thus I found myself idling in that fifth-floor rehearsal room. The man in the turtleneck presiding over the group with clipboards turned out to be Christopher Mattaliano, the show’s director.

“Folks,” he called out a few times, but conversation continued largely untroubled by this intrusion. He pressed on with the genially put-upon air of a well-meaning father, introducing the stage managers and production assistants behind him. When the room finally quieted, he told us about the show.

Esther debuted under Mattaliano’s direction in 1993, part of a festival celebrating City Opera’s fiftieth birthday. (Despite positive notices, the opera hadn’t been staged anywhere since.) Its structure was circular, Mattaliano told us. “The first scene, what we’re working on now, takes place after the battle between the Jews and Persians is over. There’s a grave digger here, ready to bury Haman. That’s the bad guy, the guy who started this, you know, pogrom. Now we’ve got him hanging up above us with his ten sons. Very dramatic. Then later we’re going to jump back in time, then we’ll move all the way back up to the battle and end right back here again.” He gave a broad wave to dramatize this temporal excitement.

Some of the supers would begin as mendicant Jews and then go on to play soldiers and dignitaries and even Haman’s ill-fated sons. I would remain a Jew throughout, appearing in four of Esther’s scenes: the opening and its reprisal at the end of the show, a scene with Esther at the end of the second act, and another with Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, at the beginning of the third.

As yet, there were no hanging bodies and no grave digger, but a wide rectangle of electrical tape marked out a grave on the floor. Much of the room had been divided to indicate the outlines of the stage, the blocking of the principal singers, and other elements of the production. This all made sense enough, but throughout the first rehearsal I remained uncertain of which wall represented the audience.

Mattaliano put us into groups of two or three that would enter the scene together. I was placed with a small, muscular man named Tom Jones, who wore a tight tank top and walked with a significant limp.

“This is a big victory,” Mattaliano continued. “You’re happy. But a lot of lives have been lost, so it’s bittersweet.”

He picked out a few supers to whom he gave specific directions: You two are relieved to see each other; You’re wounded; You’re looking for someone you love. He put the smallest woman over the shoulder of a bulky man.

“The rest of you folks,” he said, “just come up with some good business on your own.”

Perhaps sensing that I had never before been called on to come up with my own good business, Tom Jones deliberated and let me know that his would involve falling to the ground in exhaustion immediately upon entering the scene, which meant that I could occupy myself with helping him back up. After acting out our individual bits, the supers would gather together into an amorphous whole that would scurry around the grave to the back of the stage.

With no music and none of the lead performers present, stage managers standing on either side of the room gave us our entrance cues. What followed was odd clusters of people, cordoned off within seemingly arbitrary lines of tape, running around and occasionally into one another, the resulting chaos not especially suggestive of a return home from battle. Though warned of his dramatic intentions, I was in no way prepared for the sheer enthusiasm with which Tom Jones threw himself at the hardwood floor, and I stood over him for a moment in shock before helping him up. It seemed possible that his limp had been caused by years of such dedicated supernumerating. At any rate, the task of getting him standing again proved more than merely performative. When we’d finished, Mattaliano didn’t look pleased, but neither did he look as distressed as he might have.

“Okay,” he said, dragging the word out thoughtfully. “This will all make more sense as we move along.”

After two more attempts, during which little noticeable progress was made, we took a break. I spoke with a super named Dennis, who had been standing off to the side for most of the rehearsal. Dennis was a “cover,” an understudy for the male supers who would go on if one of us missed a show. He was blond and at once muscular and feminine in the manner of a dancer, which, it turns out, he was.

“I’m in the ballet,” he explained. “But now I’m transitioning into . . .” He waved his hand knowingly at the room, though it was tough to discern exactly what career play his gesture signified.

More from Christopher Beha:

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