Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
It’s been nearly six years since I had the pleasure of being a supernumerary in a Portland Opera production. Carmen was a remote possibility a couple of years ago—if we’d been home during rehearsal weeks. Sigh…
The words “Photo Shoot” in the subject line of a message from Portland Opera caught my eye a week ago Monday. It was a casting call for supers to come the next day to try out as background actors in a TV commercial for the upcoming season. The theme of the ad? An opera singer at a karaoke bar. The message also said, “Bring your friends.”
So Michelle and I went—to Buck Studios in the Northwest Industrial district. Several familiar ‘super’ men were already there. There are, of course, many more opportunities for supernumerary men than for supernumerary women. Women don’t get to be spear carriers, for example. I’d been Gary’s kept-woman in La Bohȇme and Florian’s wife in Pagliacci. I’d seen Blue many times, but hadn’t worked with him directly. We waited, watching the crew across the studio tape a young woman’s reaction to nessun’ dorma (no one sleeps) from Puccini’s Turandot. Then Darren, the director, came over to explain the premise of the 30-second ad and what he wanted us to do that afternoon.
Premise: everyone in the bar is bored, listening to people singing the same old songs. And there’s a couple who are not only bored with the music, they’re bored with each other, too.
What we had to do: a screen test. We were to transition from looking bored to being strongly moved as we listen to someone sing a passionate Puccini aria.
What? I thought, he wants me to act with my face? I figured we’d just be bodies in a shadowy, crowded bar. As a super, I much prefer acting on stage with my back to the audience.
I guess I managed to be expressive enough, plus I’d worn a colorful, sort of hippy-dippy blouse, scarf and long skirt. Blue, 20-year veteran super on stage, had showed up on his
bike, dressed in Harley gear and jeans. He and I were selected as “the Woodstock couple” and instructed to show up in pretty much the same outfits—minus logos. Fortunately Blue also has a plain leather jacket and grey sweatshirt.
Florian pretended to be upset with my assigned role: “Does this mean you’re leaving me? he asked, as though about to weep—before offering to pour coffee.
Other featured characters: bartender, KJ (karaoke jockey), opera singer,
and “conservative girl”, were professional “talent.”
Mike the bartender was the first to have his make-up done and then get behind the bar for a few shots.
We were next: with make-up and then a half-hour or so of coaching, shooting, notes, more shooting, etc. This was when Darren asked Blue if he could manage without his hearing aids—which gives you an idea of the close-ups they were working on.
Our drinks stayed on the bar. Blue’s ‘martini’ was water garnished with two olives on a toothpick. My ‘white wine’ was water with a little ginger ale to give it color.
Supers must not make noise on the opera stage, but Darren liked it when the aria affected Blue so strongly that he kissed my hands, which, of course he was holding by then. We had to do that bit several times so they could lower the mike to pick up the smooching sounds. Darren also liked the way I laughed—so I had to do that several times, too.
Michelle, Gary and other ‘background actors’ sat at bar tables, where they had plenty of time had to exchange life histories.
Florian had a bit of action, too: he walked up to the bar and got a drink before sitting down at a table.
After they did several takes of KJ Jason breaking down in tears, I approached the producer and said, “I don’t mean to be impertinent, but the tenor’s telling the stars to set so that ‘al alba, vincero!—at dawn I’ll be victorious!’ It’s not sad, it’s triumphant—the way everyone else has responded to it.”
The producer gently replied, “Actually, we’re not sure what aria they’ll use, so we’re taping a variety of reactions.”
Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t find out.
Michelle got this great shot of the final set up (as well as all the photos of Blue and me): Resident Artist tenor, Aaron Short, in red shirt, stands ready to lip-synch to the Puccini aria. I think he recorded it somewhere else for the sound track, we’ll see. “KJ” Jason, in blue shirt, is right behind him. You can see “quirky girl” Victoria (red hair) and her friend at the table—plus glittery disco balls and production crew.
A very long day—8 to 5—at The Boiler Room in Old Town, with no real drinks, only coffee and water. I’m very curious to see how at least 45 minutes of footage turns into a 30-second ‘spot.’ Darren told us that the finished product was due on April 1, eleven days later.
Carpe diem-chalk up another one.