Article — From the March 2011 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the March 2011 issue
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.
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.
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.
The appearance of the chorus at the next night’s rehearsal did little to make the setting more aspirationally promising. Mostly it made it more crowded: the chorus was large, in both its whole and its constituent parts, the build of its members being consistent with popular ideas about the body type of opera singers. With the chorus came the chorus master, the rehearsal pianist, the show’s conductor, and the diction coach, charged with ensuring proper pronunciation by singers who often know their roles only phonetically. Since Esther is written in English, this seemed somewhat superfluous.
We were also joined by Branch Fields, the bass who would be singing the part of the grave digger, now occupying the taped-off rectangle in the center of the room. As I arrived, props were being handed out, not just Branch’s grave-digging shovel but weapons for the rest of us, most of them vaguely agricultural instruments of a swords-out-of-ploughshares sort. A stage manager approached me with a dramatically curved but dull blade attached to an axe handle.
“What would you call that?” she asked.
I had no idea what I would call it, beyond heavy and impressive-seeming, more like a real weapon than the pitchforks and wooden rakes being passed around to the others.
“Let’s call it a scythe,” she said, marking the name down on her clipboard.
It was not a scythe.
“Let’s call it a scythe,” I agreed.
During the next break, I stood with Tom and Raul Reyes, the man who had worn a suit at the first rehearsal. The two were old friends and City Opera veterans. I apologized for my obvious confusion during the run-throughs.
“You’ll get the hang of it,” Tom said. “It’s not rocket science.”
Preliminary investigation suggested that supers fell roughly into two camps. In the first were people like Dennis, aspiring performers who thought an appearance onstage at Lincoln Center, however limited, might be an important career milestone. Also in this camp was Rebecca Overholt, a female super who early in our first conversation presented me with her résumé and head shot, which she had on hand for an audition that evening, something about voice-over work for a language-learning tape. Rebecca had come to New York five years earlier with a theater degree from Connecticut College. She performed at Shakespeare festivals in New Jersey; she worked for free at “hole-in-the-wall” theaters.
“I couldn’t live without being onstage,” she told me.
For the second camp the work was a less existentially urgent matter. They generally had other jobs and had been working with the company for many years, an exercise more of craft than of ambition. Raul had come to the company in the early Eighties, while a law student at Columbia. Around the same time, he started playing an orderly on Guiding Light. The prospect of such a role would have kept Dennis or Rebecca up at night, but Raul didn’t seem to take his acting work very seriously.
“It was a fun thing to do,” he said of Guiding Light. “It’s too bad they canceled it.”
Tom Jones came to City Opera a few years after Raul. He and his partner, Joe, had owned a gallery in SoHo. When Joe died, Tom closed the place and decided he wanted a change from the art world.
“I showed up, and the costume fit,” he said. “I was in La Bohème that night.”
“They were putting on so many shows back then,” Raul explained. “They were desperate to fill parts.”
Tom laughed at the memory of it. “The People’s Opera,” he said.
City Opera grew out of the Depression, when Roosevelt’s WPA Music Project created orchestras, putting unemployed musicians to work throughout the country playing twenty-five-cent concerts. The popular response to the WPA concerts in New York led Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia — whose father had come to America from Italy as part of an opera troupe — to push for more accessible cultural programs, including the creation of what he called the People’s Opera.
The name is still very much in circulation, and the implication of collective ownership has helped justify the presence of City Opera beside all the Met’s grandness, most notably in the Eighties, when Beverly Sills was running the company. Sills was the Brooklyn-born daughter of working-class Jewish immigrants. She was also probably the last American diva to be a true national celebrity — filling in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, singing “Pigoletto” with the Muppets — and she started her career at City Opera.
These days, most people associated with the People’s Opera treat the nickname, and its whiff of populist conservatism, with careful irony. City Opera has actually been fairly daring over the years, placing less emphasis on the classical repertory, often staging newer works (like Esther), and generally treating opera as a living art form with a legitimate American branch, despite the obvious preference of both the popular audience and big-ticket donors for grand European productions of the Aïda-with-elephants sort. Nonetheless, LaGuardia’s two founding premises — that there is a real audience for opera in New York, and that even this audience isn’t sufficient to pay for it — still hold.
Richard Wagner — whose own LaGuardia was Bavaria’s Ludwig II, perhaps the most dedicated patron in the history of the arts — spoke of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art” that synthesized instrumental and vocal music, dramatic narrative, lyric poetry, acting, dancing, and all of the visual arts. Combining these forms means combining their costs, and without the economies of scale that accrue to art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Imagine a film with the budget of a mid-size studio project, screened four or five times to an audience of a few thousand people and then retired from sight, and you will have some sense of opera’s fiscal futility.
The cost creates the paradox inherent in the very idea of a “People’s Opera.” City Opera can only ever really be populist in the way that, say, the Tea Party movement — also largely funded by David Koch — is populist. Which is to say that however much it may answer or express a popular want, it will exist only as long as a small number of very rich people want it to exist. And said small number’s motives may occasionally be less than entirely selfless. Over the past decade Koch, whose political views are notably out of step with New York’s arts establishment, has been one of the city’s most generous cultural philanthropists, in the process earning a stamp of social legitimacy that might otherwise have been withheld. Most people who attend the opera or the ballet at the rechristened Koch Theater realize this to some extent, and I suppose a few are even troubled by it, but none of them would wish Koch’s money away.
As Gesamtkunstwerke go, Esther is fairly gesamt, with all the traditional grand-opera trappings. However tempted I was during our first rehearsals to imagine that the opera’s fundamental action concerned a man with a scythe picking up a second, vaguely injured man from the ground, the real business of Esther involved not just twenty-one supernumeraries but twelve principals (and their twelve covers), fifty-two chorus members, a dance troupe, a children’s chorus, and a choreographed brawl put on by fight specialists.
By the second week, the rehearsal room, which had been crowded from the start, was overfull, and people were spilling out into the hallway. Every few days a new constituency joined us, each adding its specialty to our own, which was taking up space. The other cast members had been working already for weeks, refining what would after all be the chief attraction — the singing. These full rehearsals seemed intended to ensure that the directions we’d all been given didn’t conflict with one another.
Especially from outside in the hall, where I was usually stationed, the music was notably underwhelming, consisting of the practice piano and a collection of singers concerned entirely with hitting their marks and saving their voices for the real thing. And the rehearsals weren’t just getting more crowded; they were getting longer. Running through the opening scene on our first day had taken a little over an hour; rehearsing all of Esther with the full cast took six or seven. These rehearsals began in the late afternoon and ended near midnight. I left work a little early on those days, but like many supers I often arrived at rehearsal with a full day’s labor already behind me.
I had been warned that the central fact of staging the show would be boredom. (“Hurry up and wait,” no fewer than five people told me, was the governing dictum.) Because it was all new to me, because I was there as a fan and an observer, because even the most mundane developments would sustain my interest in a way the others couldn’t imagine, I had secretly believed myself immune to this promised tedium. As it happens, there are certain things that can’t be made interesting by even the most careful observation, things that don’t become tedious with repetition but begin tedious, and one such thing is standing around doing nothing while those in charge of determining what you ought to be doing confer on the question, which is what took up most of our rehearsal time.
With the full cast assembled, Mattaliano referred to the supernumeraries, when at all, as a single organism. “Supers, looking a little confused there,” he might say after we’d finished running through a scene. The observation was true but unhelpful in a describing-the-water-to-the-drowning kind of way. The entire process seemed designed to keep us confused. Having achieved some minimal competence at a task, we were asked to repeat it, only now carrying axes or with a dozen ten-year-olds joining us midway through. Once a change was absorbed, a new one was proffered. While directing us through all this, Mattaliano relied on his sixteen-year-old notes from the first production, which seemed alternately to amuse and confound him, as if he were going back over his high school yearbook.
“All right,” he would say, drawing the words out almost meditatively. “That . . . looked . . . weird.” Then he would discuss whatever weirdness he’d just observed with his production team before running us back through the same scene with no further instruction.
“How do you think we’re doing?” I asked Tom during one of the breaks.
The question seemed not to have occurred to him, which I found at once reassuring and troubling.
“Who knows?” he said. “I wouldn’t worry too much. They’re going to change everything once we get onstage anyway.”
Our move to the stage, where the material we’d been roughly working out would theoretically be refined until presentable, came two weeks before opening night. There was great excitement about this move, even for the more experienced among us, because the stage and the surrounding house had been the chief beneficiaries of the reconstruction, and the space had been carefully guarded until then.
Having been an audience member in the theater, I recognized some obvious changes. Two central aisles had been installed at orchestra level, and the plush carpeting that had lined the aisles and — bizarrely — the walls had been torn out in an effort to improve acoustics. The orchestra pit had been expanded and outfitted with a mechanical floor that could adjust the distance between the musicians and the stage. The stage itself had been modified in esoteric ways that were never made entirely clear to me but that elicited great excitement from many of the performers. Rebecca Overholt, in particular, seemed like Charlie Bucket unleashed upon the chocolate factory.
“They’ve expanded the apron,” she said, approaching the part of the stage that extended out to the orchestra pit and seeming, in her excitement, as though she might throw herself off of it.
As our first stage rehearsal began, I waited in the wings, watching Branch Fields digging with his shovel in a pile of imaginary dirt. From where I stood, I could see out into the hall, and it occurred to me as though for the first time that I would be in front of thousands of people and that, while I might (ideally) go unnoticed, it was still possible to screw things up in a way that would undo months of work by hundreds of people.
“Take a step back,” Tom Jones told me. This seemed a sage bit of psychological advice until Tom grabbed my sleeve and pulled me toward him. “You need to stand behind this line. If you can see the audience, the audience can see you.”
A moment later, our cue came, and Tom stepped out onto the stage. As I followed him he fell to the floor. After helping him up as always, I turned upstage and hugged a fellow survivor, a bit of additional business I’d developed on my own over the weeks. We formed our energetic cluster and rushed around the grave to meld with the chorus in the dramatic tableau that would set off the rest of the performance.
“All right, stop there.”
From out in the hall, Mattaliano’s voice came over the loudspeaker, bringing the performance to a halt.
“Something . . . uh . . . happened there?”
Finding myself standing alone, several feet away from the other supers, I worried that Mattaliano was talking about me. With relief I looked upstage and saw the attention of the group directed instead to one of the female supers, a former dancer named Katherine. She was holding up her hand, as if making an announcement. It took me another moment to recognize that this hand was bleeding, not dangerously but with insistence, the apparent victim of an instrument of indeterminate name and function. Let us call it a scythe.
Things got confused after that. Katherine was given first aid, and an injury report was filled out. Then a stagehand took my weapon. He said he would cover the blade with electrical tape and return it by the end of the day, but I suspected I would never see it again. My suspicion, it turned out, was well founded: when the show opened two weeks later, I went on as an unarmed Jew.
Three days later, we were running through the second act’s climactic scene — mendicants in sackcloth and ashes surround Esther, pleading with her to see their affliction — when Mattaliano determined the stage to be too busy. “Let’s . . . try . . . that again,” he called over the loudspeaker. “But . . . uh . . . will the super on the right please step off the stage?”
For long weeks I had practiced raising my hands dramatically to cover my face; I had practiced putting fists to temples in a gesture of migrained despair; I had practiced walking slowly downstage and appealing to our queen. And now I had been cut.
Removed from that scene, I appeared only in the first and last acts of the show, so I spent most of the stage rehearsals seated out in the house. From there, it was easier than it had been upstairs to imagine our putting on a presentable show.
In particular, I devoted my attention to Lauren Flanigan, the soprano who sang the title role. Flanigan was a pretty woman of early middle age, solidly built but hardly a Valkyrie, her hair cut close to her head and dyed platinum. She was one of the company’s biggest names, and she had launched her career in part by creating the role of Esther in the original, short-lived City Opera run. (Opera being not much concerned with dramatic verisimilitude, she was reprising the role despite the fact that Esther is supposed to be a teenager.)
In the rehearsal room, Flanigan had been unfailingly modest. During breaks, she sat with the children’s choir rather than the other principals, asking the kids schoolmarmish questions about what grade they were in or what subjects they liked. But now on the main stage she seemed different. It was as though the mere move to the stage — or perhaps my own move into the seats — had transformed her. She was still singing at no more than 50 percent, accompanied by a single piano, but when she sang she demanded the theater’s attention in a way that no one else had.
It struck me as perverse that we hadn’t yet seen the orchestra, but when I asked the others I was told to wait for the Sitzprobe — literally, “sit rehearsal” — the session at which the singers and the orchestra sit down to fit their parts together. Given how much of an opera’s meaning resides precisely in the interplay of instrument and voice, I’d assumed this would happen early in the process. But an orchestra’s time is prohibitively expensive — a band of highly trained specialists, they are the anti-supernumeraries — so it doesn’t make sense to keep one on hand until everything else has been put into place. Hence the piano that accompanied us until the last closed rehearsal, when the sixty-two-member orchestra (about average for an opera, though some Wagnerian work requires more than a hundred players) filled the newly refurbished pit.
On the piano, the score sounded like a parody of avant-garde music. Hugo Weisgall, who died not long after Esther’s premiere, at the age of eighty-four, was an atonal modernist in the line of Schoenberg, and the music he wrote was craggy and arrhythmic and dissonant. But the complete orchestra revealed his work’s underlying melody and harmonic richness. Rehearsing with the full force of the score behind them seemed to excite the cast, whose dominant emotion until then had been fatigue.
Occasionally during these last days, the seat next to Mattaliano in the audience would be occupied by George Steel, the company’s new general manager, dressed in a blue blazer and button-down oxford shirt, his sandy blond hair in a prep school cut.
Mortier, the man Steel had replaced, had been an unlikely choice to head an institution that prides itself on being particularly unpretentious and American. He was near the end of his career, approaching the mandatory retirement age at the Paris National Opera, where he’d brought air mattresses and jumpsuits to Mozart’s Magic Flute. (At Salzburg before that, he’d brought kink and cocaine to Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus.)
Previous management had talked of leaving Lincoln Center for Carnegie Hall or the new World Trade Center site, but Mortier wanted badly to stay and compete with the Met, so those discussions had ended and the construction had begun. When the theater went dark, all attention was directed to the impresario’s arrival from Paris. He commissioned new operas based on “Brokeback Mountain” and the life of Walt Disney. It was said that his first season would open with a new production of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach and that David Lynch would direct The Tales of Hoffman.
Then everything went to hell. Manhattan’s arts organizations rely heavily on Wall Street largesse, which vanished with the new Gilded Age. Contracts with the orchestra, the chorus, and the crew still had to be honored, even without a season being staged. Conditioned by Europe’s cultural subsidies (the French government gives the equivalent of the entire annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts to the Paris Opera each year), Mortier seemed shocked that something so prosaic as the fall of Lehman Brothers might interfere with his ambitions. Ten months before his planned arrival, he announced that he wouldn’t be coming to New York.
Steel is a kind of anti-Mortier, plainspoken, boyish, and modest. A decade spent running the Miller Theater at Columbia University had earned him a reputation as an eclectic music programmer with particular interests in the baroque and the modern. But he had little experience running an opera company, provocatively or not. Where Mortier spoke condescendingly of ending his career by “returning to a smaller house,” Steel had landed a star-making gig.
He had six weeks to plan his first season, a task that typically takes more than a year. The budget had been halved, so the shortened program, down to five productions from the usual thirteen or fourteen, was no surprise. But the decision to open with Esther baffled people. Steel acknowledged the confusion.
“I always thought of Weisgall as easygoing lefty Brooklyn music,” he admitted. “But this is much more serious.”
He explained that he’d kept a list over the years of the great operas of the past half century, asking for expert opinions whenever he had the chance. Weisgall’s name came up often. In particular, people mentioned Esther, though there is no commercial recording of the work. Steel read the score, and he wanted to bring it back to the stage. That it was a lesser-known American work, musically austere, the kind of thing the Met would never stage — all these facts spoke in Esther’s favor. Admittedly, thrift was also a factor: the company still had the sets and costumes in its warehouse.
There seemed to be an additional thematic significance, even if Steel wouldn’t admit it. Esther is a young Jewish woman chosen to be queen of Persia after King Xerxes banishes his first wife. When her new husband signs an order to exterminate the empire’s Jews, Esther intervenes, and Xerxes allows her people to arm themselves in defense. The Jews in Esther, under siege, threatened with extinction, want only a chance to defend themselves, a chance to put on their show.
I arrived on opening night at call time, an hour before the curtain rose, and headed to the fifth floor, where the male supers and chorus members had adjacent dressing rooms. Places were marked for each of us at two long vanity tables with mirrors bordered by bright, bare bulbs.
Down on stage level, each principal was assigned a dresser to handle quick changes throughout the show, but the male supers had just one for the twelve of us, since our needs were minimal. Having been measured so comprehensively around the time we started rehearsals — not just inseam, outseam, waist and chest, shoulders, neck and arms, but front-neck-to-waist and crotch-around and armhole — I had arrived at my fitting expecting to be shoehorned into something elaborate and precise. Instead, my outfit consisted of a long, loose black robe that zipped up the front, which the wardrobe sheet labeled basic jew. I also wore sandals, less biblical than suburban-hippie, ordered last minute online after a chorus member claimed the only pair in my size.
Each super got a sponge, a plastic dish of brown, sludge-like stage makeup, and a black eyeliner pencil. Tom Jones had the seat next to mine, and we were both at the end of the table, close to the dresser, Henry, who was something of an institution. Henry had dressed Olivier on Broadway, Tom told me. Henry had dressed Mister Anthony Quinn. Before the revolution, Henry had danced at a nightclub in Havana.
“A drag club?”
“No, honey,” Henry scolded me. “We didn’t say drag. We were female impersonators.”
“Ask him about Salome,” Tom said.
Many years ago, the Met had retired an old production of Strauss’s Salome. Henry knew the prop director, who agreed to get him the head of John the Baptist, with which Henry developed a Dance of the Seven Veils nightclub act.
“I had a mild version and a racy version. The mild version was just a striptease.”
“What was the racy version?”
Henry looked at me as though I was entirely hopeless.
“The racy version was, I fuck the head.”
There was an intercom in the dressing room, and the stage manager made frequent announcements on it, counting down the remaining time until the orchestra began to tune up and we were due downstairs. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the stage manager said as I headed next door to the wig room, “this is your half-hour call. Half an hour until the tune.”
There were three hairstylists — Jason, Vanessa, and Marina — outfitting thirty-five of us. I waited in line behind a few male chorus members, who stood in their Basic Jew, half an hour before the tune, with the easy air of men who had done all of this hundreds of times before. It was around this time that I started to feel sick.
Vanessa and Marina had been up all night on a movie set, they told me as I took a seat; they had styled Uma Thurman. Now Vanessa put a stocking cap over my head and ran three pins through the nylon. Moments later I had a full head of hair for the first time since my senior year of high school. The hair was lush, almost simian, and it came with a bushy costume beard. Vanessa pressed my fake beard directly against my cheeks and pulled its strap to the back of my head. The effect, one chorus member remarked, was that of an Amish pedophile.
Back in the dressing room, bearded and wigged, we waited for Henry to pin on our hats. Most of these were black and vaguely Asiatic, somewhere between a yarmulke and a bowler, but for reasons unknown mine had a floral design and might have belonged on a housewife in a Fifties sitcom.
“How do I look, Mary?” Tom asked Henry.
Henry considered him carefully.
“You look like a dear old friend of mine,” he drawled in his Cuban accent. “She worked as a bearded lady on Coney Island.”
Using an eyeliner pencil, Tom drew a Marilyn Monroe beauty mark on his cheek before running his hands suggestively over his own body. He was still in the midst of a hip-shaking dance when the stage manager’s voice returned.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your ten-minute call. Ten minutes until the tune. Stand by, grave digger. Stand by, Esther. Stand by, chorus. Stand by, supers.”
I was ready to go on, by which I mean there was nothing left to distract me from thoughts of the audience filling the theater. Over the intercom I could hear the rustling of programs and the clearing of throats. I walked down the hall to the soda machine for a ginger ale to settle my stomach. Rather, I stumbled: halfway there I discovered that my robe was two inches too long, so that it dragged on the ground both in front and behind, catching in my sandals every few steps and giving me visions of tripping on stage and falling headlong into Haman’s grave.
By grabbing a fistful of the black fabric, I could bring my hemline even with my feet, which solved the problem. Onstage, the key would be taking up just enough to move freely upstage with the rest of the crowd without looking like a cancan girl raising her skirts. I practiced, doing laps between the candy machine and the soda machine.
Back down the hall, I watched the last of the Jews board the elevator to stage level. I had missed the five-minute call. Over the intercom, I heard the orchestra tuning. I lifted my robe to my knees and ran down the stairs. I made it in time to find my place between Tom and Alex, a female super who entered after us in the opening scene. Alex would also be appearing in the new staging of Don Giovanni, playing Donna Elvira’s maid, perhaps the most sought-after supernumerary role in the repertory. In the third act, the Don mounts her while she lies on top of the Commendatore’s coffin. She leaned over to whisper in my ear.
“This is my favorite part,” she said. “Just before the curtain goes up.”
When the curtain did go up, I was happy for the line of tape that Tom had pointed out to me our first time onstage, behind which the audience couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see them.
From a supernumerical perspective, the first scene went off without a hitch. Like a hitter who has been swinging a weighted bat in the on-deck circle, I was strangely lightened in my work without the scythe. Tom Jones fell in the same spot he’d always fallen, and I helped him up. With the spotlights shining, it was tough to see the people watching from their seats, and anyway I tried to keep my attention away from them. In another minute I was offstage, on my way upstairs, and back to waiting.
As the show went on below us, two of the supers slept on cots in the dressing room, and Tom Jones leafed lazily through a magazine whose back cover featured an ad for the website brokestraightguys.com. I passed most of the time talking with Henry about his old nightclub days. But when the second act began, he and the supers went down to the stage, and I was left alone in the dressing room to watch the show on closed-circuit television.
Late in the second act, Mordecai asks Esther to intervene with the king on her people’s behalf. She can go to the king only if summoned, she replies. She doesn’t want to be banished, as the king’s first wife was. Flanigan seemed every bit the impetuous teenager who doesn’t want to risk her place of privilege. And then the chorus arrives, singing, “See our affliction,” and Esther breaks down.
I was surprised not just by how moving I found this scene, which I had watched in various incarnations dozens of times, but by the thing that made it so. The chorus, which had seemed to me throughout rehearsals a disaffected and cynical bunch, not much interested in Weisgall’s art or even by the more basic demands of theatrical professionalism, sang now in one haunting voice. It was and was not their own voice. The voice belonged to those fifty people, and to Hugo Weisgall, who had given the voice its sound, and to dozens of suffering wanderers dead two and a half millennia ago. I remembered as I listened why I had wanted to be a part of this production, and why I wanted so badly for City Opera to exist. I still wondered whether the People’s Opera would survive, but it seemed to me remarkable that it had survived so long, that it had filled a newly renovated hall with thousands of spectators come to see an obscure but beautiful work of modernist art put on at great expense.
Even the languor of the past two months, the waiting and the standing around, took on new meaning. I thought of another assessment that Nietzsche had of opera, that it was a triumph over impatience. “To sit five hours,” he wrote, “the first stage of holiness!”
I was in that first stage, still staring at the screen, when the second act ended. A few moments later, the dressing room was again filled as the cast readied themselves to go back on. I had managed to avoid being cut from the last act, and I was even allowed to carry a weapon, though it had been downgraded to a wooden rake so thin and fragile that it would have been inadequate even for its primary function. I followed Mordecai, who was leading us into battle. Along with the other Jews, I surrounded him conspiratorially. We followed him downstage, insisting that forever afterward that day should be known as “Mordecai’s day.” Of course, this was sung, not spoken, and the trick for me and the other supers was to gesture along with the chorus, so that it seemed we were calling out with them while under no circumstances making any noise of our own.
Back in the wings, I felt the rush that came from collaborating with dozens of others on a live performance. I would be entering in the last scene on the other side of the stage, so I had to walk down a long, narrow hallway filled with props from hundreds of previous shows.
As promised on the first day of rehearsal, we end where we began. The grave digger digs below a fiery sky. The sun is setting now, or else just beginning to rise. A woman appears beside the grave, shrouded. “I am Esther,” she says, letting her hood fall. As she reveals herself, a crowd comes into view in the distance, battered but not defeated. Our fists are raised to the sky, where our enemies’ bodies hang. The gesture suggests not victory outright but something like defiance.
More from Christopher Beha:
Six Questions — May 24, 2013, 8:00 am