After years of writing about classical music and opera, I’m actually in an opera as a supernumerary, the operatic equivalent of an extra. My role: a Russian peasant peeling potatoes in the first scene of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.
The audition was easy: fill out a form and be photographed next to a measuring stick. Less than two weeks later, super captain Andrea Shell called with rehearsal dates and costume head Reba Senske emailed a request for measurements.
Let the potato peeling begin.
After navigating Music Hall’s backstage labyrinth, I find the large rehearsal room, where I meet the female leads, production staff and my super partner, Lee Anne Waldvogel. Director Mark Streshinsky introduces himself; this is his fourth CO production and he tells us that he has no preconceived ideas.
We begin. Using highlighters, Leanne and I pretend to peel potatoes as the sisters Tatyana and Olga sing a sad lament while their mother Madame Larina recalls an old love, joined by the nurse Fillipyevna.
Mezzo Edyta Kulczak is out with stomach flu, so conductor Vasily Petrenko, an older and better-looking version of Doogie Howser, flawlessly sings her part in falsetto.
I am so entranced by the singing of Stacey Rishoi, Mika Shigametsu and Tatiana Moronagova and accompanist Marie-France Lefebvre’s extraordinary playing that Mark calls out, “Anne! Wrong reaction!” I confer quickly with Leanne and we decide that I’ll “cut” my finger while listening to the quartet. Mark approves.
The chorus comes in after the break and Mark stages their entrance. They are an awesome wall of Russian sound. Our next bit is to take sheaves of wheat from the dancers, place them on the table and distribute cups and vodka to our peasant colleagues.
I’ve spent three hours here and I feel as if I just arrived.
Now the sheaves go offstage but one on stays on the table. Cup and vodka duty are the same. After 15 minutes, Mark asks supers to stay for the rest of the three-hour rehearsal in case he wants to include us in the act’s final scene. He doesn’t.
I have a costume fitting after rehearsal. Two costumes? “Yes,” says Reba. “No,” says Mark, with regret. No supers in the second act. That’s show biz.
I’m happily surprised by the easy rapport between principals, chorus and supers. All the leads are here, including Nathan Gunn, who sings the title character. Tall, dark-haired and bespectacled, he looks like Gregory Peck until he takes off the glasses and sings. He and tenor Bill Burden, who portrays the poet Lensky, sound glorious and their Russian is spot-on, says a Russian chorus member. Edyta is warm, lively and eager to interact with us. With their blonde hair and graceful carriage, she and Tatiana could be sisters. O happy we — Mark tells us to stay onstage with the women’s chorus surrounding Nathan in the second scene.
The sheaf transfer is a train wreck. We carry all of them offstage. No, leave two on the table. Make that one. Mika and Edyta assure us that they’ll help out. The chorus runs through the second act’s party scene, coordinating dance movement with singing in Russian, a few of them sneaking looks at file cards. By the next rehearsal, no file cards, all the movement is in place.
I’ve been on the Music Hall stage, but not like this. The hall is huge. As we take our places for the first scene, it hits me: This is really hard work, projecting out in the vastness. Audiences expect perfection with every performance, but do they know how difficult that is? Especially with those damned lights in your face?
Mark and assistant director Jen are all over the stage, fine-tuning and re-arranging. When it’s time to collect the metal cups, I’m relieved that the stage manager tells everyone to carry the cups offstage.
It’s the first rehearsal with costumes and makeup. We share a dressing room with chorus women, who expertly pin up their hair and apply makeup. Each of them receives a ziplock bag of supplies; ours has an eyebrow pencil. Apologetically, Andrea tells us we only have to darken our eyebrows. And our makeup mirror lights aren’t on. A tech is supposed to fix it but never shows.
A kindly dresser helps me into my costume, lacing me into a corset that rouses the shade of Scarlett O’Hara. Waiting to go onstage, Edyta taps my shoulder and smiles. I barely recognize her in her curly blonde wig, but the smile is unmistakable. Tatiana’s blonde hair has become dark-brown braids and she truly looks like an innocent country girl.
With genuine potatoes and wooden knives, we’re really acting. Bill and Nathan look terrific in their costumes. Who wouldn’t fall for Nathan’s dark good looks and sardonic smile?
I watch the rest of the opera out in the hall and I feel sorry for the male supers, who have less than five minutes of business onstage. I’m a silent partner in this magic making, and it’s amazing.
EUGENE ONEGIN is presented by Cincinnati Opera at Music Hall 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday. For tickets, call 513-241-ARIA.Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.