Extra Special: Evolving Role Of Supernumeraries

Great Performances at the Met: Aida
Soldiers, guards and prisoners: The triumphal scene in the Met’s ‘Aida’ is a spectacle involving 151 supernumeraries.
(Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
By Barbara Jepson

Years ago, when the Lyric Opera of Chicago needed twenty shiphands for a staging of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, it sent out audition notices for “big, buff, bald or shaved bodybuilders” to perform as supernumeraries — non-singing, non-dancing “extras” who help populate crowd scenes and appear as torch-bearers, waiters, servants, assassins, and the like. This season, supernumeraries walk on stilts (Wagner’s Die Meistersinger at the San Francisco Opera), rappel down a wall (the world premiere of Jimmy Lopez’s Bel Canto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago), and entertain the queen as a fire juggler (Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera). They are there to help fulfill the director’s vision for a production — even if it involves wearing a giant fish head in the dream-sequence pantomime of the Met’s latest staging of Hansel and Gretel.

Heidi Munziger, in color, with other handmaidens to SFO’s Princess Turandot in 2011. (operabobb.com)
Heidi Munziger, in color, with other handmaidens to San Francisco’s ‘Turandot’ in 2011.

While many supernumerary roles fall into what San Francisco Opera extra Heidi Munzinger calls “blink and they’re over moments,” others require more sustained dramatic credibility and expertise. That’s been particularly true in the last 15 years or so, due to the increasing dominance that directors exert over opera productions, and to the close-up shots and other requirements imposed by high-definition movie or television transmissions.

“Directors have really raised the bar of what ‘supers’ can do,” says Trey Costerisan, coordinator of supernumeraries at the San Francisco Opera, “It’s not just standing around with a spear anymore.”

Says Munzinger, who has appeared onstage with the company since 2011, “I like to think of us as filling in the subtle colors between the principals, the chorus, and whatever else is going on. Because [directors] can costume us however they want and ask us to do whatever they want. They don’t have to worry, does this work for so-and-so while they’re singing, or interfere with the choral blend.”

Non-singing witches flew high in 'Macbeth' at Lyric Opera Chicago.
Non-singing witches flew high in ‘Macbeth’ at Chicago’s Lyric in 2010. (Robert Kusel)

Supers may be hired to underline what’s happening onstage or amplify larger operatic themes. “If there are witches on the ground singing,” says Bill Walters, super captain at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, “a director may add witches who can fly. They create a more witch-like effect.” Costerisan recalls a San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s Tosca, where director José Maria Condemi ended the “Agnus Dei” ceremony at the church with simultaneous spotlights on a cardinal-playing supernumerary raising a monstrance downstage center, while the malevolent Scarpia, downstage left, sings the last line. “To me,” Costerian relates, “it suggested that while Scarpia is in power now, his time is almost up.”

The most famous super scene is the unforgettable triumphal march in Act Two of Verdi’s Aida, with its extensive processions of soldiers, guards and prisoners. The 2014-15 season production at the Met employed 151 extras. Of the works in the company’s current repertoire, that is exceeded only by its presentation of Prokofiev’s War and Peace, which had 227, although the world premiere of Barber’s Antony & Cleopatra at the opening of Lincoln Center may have surpassed that. The latter was directed by the king of spectacle, Franco Zeffirelli.

But in recent decades, many directors have shunned the trappings of grand opera, as do most contemporary composers. “Where opera directors in the past often created visual pictures by stationing bodies in place,” says Joseph Barnes, director of supernumeraries for the Metropolitan Opera, “today’s directors create visual pictures by giving supers activities to do, with heightened characterization.”

A fire juggling super takes center stage in the Met's 'Maria Stuarda.' (Ken Howard)
A fire juggling super takes center stage in the Met’s ‘Maria Stuarda.’ (Ken Howard)

Those who hire, schedule and oversee supernumeraries maintain extensive databases with hundreds of names categorized by gender, height, weight, and other particulars, noting any special skills, like stage combat, acrobatics, or comedy.

“There are some productions where all the soldiers need to be anonymous and match,” says Barnes. “They’re going to be standing in a line, and the director wants them to be kind of the same height. For another production, the director might say, ‘I need people of all shapes and sizes.’ Of course, during the audition process, directors may decide that they want, for example, a different age mix from what they initially requested.”

Or a super’s last-minute improvisation may inspire changes in the action. During an early rehearsal of Verdi’s Falstaff for the Met in 2013, Sasha Semin was pushed (as intended) but stumbled (unintended). “I was aware that there was an arm chair behind me,” recalls Semin, a longtime freelance super at the company, “so I continued my fall and landed on the chair. Everyone laughed and the director [Robert Carsen] said, ‘…Can you do it again?’ It was very tricky to calculate my backwards stumble for every show.”

Wotan's descent into Nibelheim involves a doubling super in the Robert Lepage production at the Met. (Ken Howard)
Wotan’s descent into Nibelheim involves a doubling super in the LePage production.
(Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

Indeed, the most demanding parts for supers often involve physical risks, although Semin, a gymnast in his native Russia, says he’d rather tumble than stand in one spot for 45 minutes wearing 60 pounds of armor. In the Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s “Ring” at the Met, Semin acted as body-double for Wotan in Das Rheingold. He and the double for Loge enter the set 35 feet above the stage, suspended from a single cable. “I am being pulled 6 feet behind him,” he says, “and we are going down to Nibelheim. It doesn’t leave any room for mistakes, and you must stay in character.”

Although there are fewer parts for female supers in traditional operas, they too have their challenging moments. Munzinger cites her appearance as a courtesan in Vincent Boussard’s production of Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues for the San Francisco Opera. “We wore beautiful gowns by Christian Lacroix,” she recalls. “Part of the director’s vision was that the Capulet courtesans had a precarious place in society, so he wanted us all in 5-inch heels. We were tottering around, in some cases running up and down what looked like bleacher stairs covered with reflective material, so it was rather slippery.”

Other scenes merely felt dangerous to her because of the dramatic intensity projected by the principal singers. Munzinger was cast as one of the townspeople in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. “We were very much integrated into every scene, right down to the end where the Susannah, who in this case was Patricia Racette, was pointing the shotgun at us and threatening us.….I told [tenor] Brandon Jovanovich, ‘Make sure that gun is not loaded, because she’s going to blow us off the stage otherwise.’”

At busy opera houses like the Met, chorus members may be involved in multiple productions during the season. Christopher Dumont, one of nine full-time, salaried supers at the Met, says that on those occasions, the director spends a lot of hours “workshopping the scene” with the soloists and supers—“developing the specificity of little things, and slowly the chorus gets integrated into the process.”

Portraying multiple roles in one opera presents dramatic challenges and requires supers to be quick-change artists. “In one evening.” recalls Dumont, a classically trained actor, “I went from playing the Tsar of Russia, to a French general, to a lunatic, in War and Peace. It was a lot of fun.”

That was the same production where one of the supers cast as soldiers in Napolean’s defeated army made headlines by accidentally landing in the orchestra pit on opening night. During the final act, the hill-like set was showered with confetti to evoke a Moscow snowstorm. Fortunately, the individual fell into a safety net and was unharmed.

Consistency in appearance throughout an opera run is important. For those not wearing wigs, their hair length, color, and style cannot be changed during a production. In the case of revivals, if supers gain or lose appreciable weight in between seasons, it can affect their ability to fit into their previous costumes—which might require hiring someone else who can.

All in all, it’s a precarious existence; many supers juggle different jobs or are retired. According to Walters, 24 out of about 175 supers used during the 2014-15 season at Lyric Opera were hired actors—AGMA members who made about $500 per week, plus health and pension benefits. The rest were volunteers who received $15 per rehearsal or performance to help defray expenses. At the San Francisco Opera, all adult supers are volunteers who are given modest honorariums towards expenses. But because of child labor laws, child supers are paid the current minimum wage of $12.15 per hour. “We sometimes have to school them on site, with studio school, depending on the work schedule that day,” says Costerisan. Not surprisingly, the Metropolitan Opera is the exception. Its nine staff supers earned about $50,000 each before the 2014 labor negotiations, but their annual salary varies widely each season according to the repertoire. Freelancers are paid on a fee-for-service basis.

Yet being a supernumerary also offers certain psychic rewards. Munzinger’s assignments in the San Francisco Opera’s 2012 production of Attila included that of a spear-carrying Roman soldier. She remembers how hard it was to stay in character, stalwart and unmoved, when baritone Quinn Kelsey, as the Roman general Ezio, sang his big aria. “That’s the payoff of being a super,” she says. “You are often standing just feet away from a phenomenal world-class singer, hearing them do what they do best.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall, 2015 issue of Listen: Life with Music & Culture.

Barbara Jepson is a contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s Arts in Review page whose articles have also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Arts and Leisure, Opera News, and other national publications.

Supers crowded the stage at the 1966 world premiere of Barber's 'Antony and Cleopatra'. (Louis Mélançon/Metropolitan Opera)
Supers crowded the stage at the 1966 world premiere of Barber’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’
(Louis Mélançon/Metropolitan Opera)