Supernumeraries: opera's extras

October 18, 2010

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

Download Story
Photo by Dan Rest.

You may not be able to sing. In fact you may not know an aria from an arpeggio! But that doesn’t mean that you can’t tread the boards at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. They need extras. In the opera world these special scene fillers are called supernumeraries, or “supers” for short. For WBEZ, Anne Cadigan spent the day at the Lyric Opera learning more about them. 

By day, Ken Giambrone works in advertising. But at night, the characteristics that make him successful at his day job, could get him fired. 

GIAMBRONE: Rule number 1 is we’re supposed to make absolutely no sound on stage at all. Nothing. There’s a saying among us, if the audience notices you, you’re doing something wrong. 

Night after night during opera season, men and women from all over the Chicago area finish up their day jobs, hurry over to North Wacker Drive, and spend their evenings on the stage of The Lyric. 

They are supernumeraries or extras on stage-the servants, prison guards, maids, policemen, townspeople, things like that. 

GIAMBRONE: We just sort of fill out the scenery. We’re kind of like live action scenery in a way.

Ambi – REHEARSAL AND ORCHESTRAL INSTRUCTION 

It’s a rehearsal day at the Lyric and Macbeth and Carmen are practicing simultaneously. Macbeth uses 14 children as supers, and there are 30 adult supers in Carmen. Many of them have been doing it year after year. Evanston resident Michael Horvich calls supering at the Lyric his “second career.” 

HORVICH: I taught for 30 years and right before I retired, I came to a backstage tour that the opera guild gives. The person that was leading the small group of about 20 people around the opera house was a super and talked about “supering.” And I said to myself  ‘oh my god’ can you imagine being on stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago? So I retired and came to a casting. I’ve been in the opera as a supernumerary for 10 years now and I’ve been in about 20 operas.

Ambient – “Ermine? Yes Maestro? From the top, please.”

WALTERS: We do eight operas a year and almost every single opera has supers in it.

Bill Walters is the "Super Captain."  He’s in charge of hiring, rehearsing and wrangling the 200 plus supers that will appear on stage at The Lyric over the course of a season. Occasionally, however, there are parts that he just can’t fill. 

WALTERS: We did Porgy and Bess a couple of years ago and, it was of course a special cast of course because it’s all African-American. And we needed, I think, 30 for the show. And, so we always have kids, I mean kids come in all the time, so we had enough kids to do it. And I noticed during rehearsal that their parents would be sitting there, bringing them, watching the rehearsal and one by one I went up to them, and I was like, 'You know, are you going to be here every night, driving your child?' Because we were still looking for adults. And they’re like, 'Well yeah,' and I said, 'Would you like to be in the opera?' 

Diane Gallagher of Muenster, Indiana, once found herself in a similar position. Her eldest child was a super in The Magic Flute  The Lyric needed someone who could dance and her son pointed at her. She has a ballet background  It wasn’t long before she was making her debut. She was a Dancing Lion.

GALLAGHER: (laughing) So that was an experience in itself! Being able to see out of the costume and do the dance steps. So I will always remember my first time here! 

Diane is now an experienced super. She and her husband and 3 of their 4 children now regularly make the 45-minute trip in from Indiana to play all kinds of walk-on roles. It’s taught her children to love opera.

GALLAGHER: Well, I think it’s a great, educational experience in the fine arts. And they just…they truly enjoy it. You know, they love being on stage. They’re learning about different operas, and different performers throughout the world. It’s just wonderful.  

Ken Giambrone says that being so close to the action is quite the experience. He should know – he’s been in 15 operas.

GIAMBRONE: It’s pretty loud! (laughs) It’s pretty loud. I remember when I was in the Pearl Fishers...Nicole Cabell, I was lucky I got to be in a scene with her, part of the story where she takes off her necklace and gives it to me. It was unbelievable to me that she was standing right there and I was standing in front of 3,500 people. She stands right there and is like inches from my face and she sings to me. To ME. It was pretty thrilling. 

For Michael Horvich, the man who got turned on to supering by that tour guide, “being on stage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago” is every bit as amazing as he imagined it would be when he first heard the word supernumerary ten years ago.

HORVICH: When I’m on stage my spirit soars. It fills the whole opera house. To be in the middle of all of that gorgeous music. It’s a dream come true, really.