Word of the Day: Supernumerary
Those of you who don't think opera overlaps with popular culture have not been watching Mad Men. Or am I the only one who remembers a conversation Don Draper had in an elegant restaurant in the first of this season's episodes, when he was on a blind date with a young woman who told him she was a supernumerary at the Met? She explained that her task was to help fill the stage. "I do a lot of mock drinking," she told him. "I've been a wench, a courtesan, part of a harem.... I love the costumes and the music." In other words, she's part of a crowd and doesn't sing.
When she asked if he'd ever been to the opera, he said, "Only for business, so I've never enjoyed it." (So Don Draper: does he enjoy anything?) She invited him to a performance, of course, saying although they don't get paid, "they give the supers tickets."
At San Francisco Opera, the supers do get paid, a bit: $6 for each "out-of-house," or staging, rehearsal; $11 for every onstage dress rehearsal and performance. For Aida, the season opener, the supers will attend about ten staging rehearsals and five onstage rehearsals, and they'll be in 12 performances. That means the 19 men and 14 women who fit the costumes (that's how supers are usually selected) will earn about $250 each, plus two tickets to the final dress rehearsals for any operas they are in.
Aida is surely one of the operas that gave rise to the more colloquial name for supernumeraries, which is: spear carriers. (The local supers' newsletter is at spearheadnews.com.) You always see plenty of exotic-looking spear carriers in Aida's famous processional scene, with its stirring music and more or less Egyptian-style costumes. British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes created the sets and costumes for this "eye-popping production," from Houston Grand Opera. Just scroll back and look at the photo.
Christopher Smith, a super I met at a casting call, will be the one in the jackel-head, or Anubis, costume. He tells me supers usually get to wear two costumes per opera. For Aida, he says, he's "mostly in miniskirts and body paint"--not all that different from what he wore a few years ago in his first SFO production, Mozart's Idomeneo. In other words, "I feel mostly nekkid." (He's from Kentucky, and every once in a while exhibits a bit of a twang that sounds like the characters' in the FX channel's Justified.) But that's OK, because at least in the processional scene, "we come in real quick and we're off." Costume change!