- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2001

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Don´t be alarmed if a blond, pleasant, short woman with a British accent and pink-framed glasses approaches you somewhere in town and asks you to be a spear carrier in "Don Carlo" or a maid in "Le Nozze di Figaro."

Those are the two upcoming Washington Opera productions, and the woman is Jennifer Johnston. She is the supernumerary coordinator at the opera, the person who casts the "supers" or extras (the people who don´t sing) for the opera´s productions.

This season, Miss Johnston, 63, had to cast 285 extras, most of them slender young men.

"Operas always need fighters and soldiers, " Miss Johnston says.

They have needed Nubian slaves, too "Giulio Cesare" took six of them and an executioner for "Turandot, " a turn done this time by a professional trainer and actor.

"Turandot, " the Washington Opera´s most recent production, was an easy job compared to "Don Quixote, " which needed 109 extras, "all of them young and able to move, " Miss Johnston says.

Most of the extras performing at the Washington Opera are not professional actors. Miss Johnston´s files, with more than 900 entries, include judges, bankers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, economists and public relations people who do the work just for fun. She also hires actors, but that isn´t an easy task, either.

"The good actors are busy, or doing film. This is a busy town, with everybody always having a lot of things to do, " Miss Johnston says.

In other places, such as New York, San Francisco or Chicago, the supernumerary job is easier. There are more actors, and they are better paid. The Washington Opera only pays $25 per performance, and that amount includes rehearsals (about three hours per performance).

To find the extras the opera needs, Miss Johnston places notices in gyms, high schools (a lot of extras for "Don Quixote" came from local high schools) or universities. But good extras can be found everywhere. For instance, at her local church, in Bethesda, Miss Johnston never goes to Mass without her Polaroid camera. "There are plenty of young, handsome men in my church, and I´ve casted a lot of them, " she says.

She also talks to people in pubs or at private parties, trying to get them interested in the shows.

"The people will ask me, 'What do I have to do? ´ and I answer, 'Nothing; just be there and look as handsome as you do now,´" Miss Johnston says. "I´ve tried to convince my 28-year-old son, but he assures he travels too often and can´t commit himself, " she says.

Then she stares at a reporter and asks, "Is your height 5-5? Maybe you are interested in next season´s productions."

A typical day in Miss Johnston´s schedule includes several hours at the phone; she says she spent about 1,000 hours talking on the phone last season. Every super cast takes at least five calls, she says.

"To get 25 people, I would probably approach 75, " Miss Johnston says.

After casting the people, she has to organize the signing sheets and include the information in her files, noting height, weight and any interesting feature.

"And then, when everything is organized, people would drop off, and I´d have to redo it, " Miss Johnston says.

Take the case of "Turandot. " On opening day, Feb. 24, Miss Johnston had less than five hours to find a replacement for an extra who had the flu.

"I needed to find someone who was 6-foot-2, " she says.

She called five people. One of them not only agreed to be there, but also shaved his beard, a requirement for the role.

"When I got to the show, someone whom I called before but couldn´t reach came in anyway. He knew how desperate I was, " Miss Johnston says.

The anguish comes back with every new performance. "Don Carlo, " which opens March 17, needs 60 supers, including four children. "This is the third opera of the season, and my actors are tired, " she says.

This is Miss Johnston´s second season at the Washington Opera, but she started supervising extras 25 years ago.

Trained as an actress in Great Britain and the United States (she was born in Kent and came to the United States when she was 18), Miss Johnston had roles in several films, including "My Fair Lady, " "The Americanization of Emily" and "The Sound of Music. " She often played the role of maid.

"I´ve played the old maid, the young maid, everything. A film director once described me saying that I had a modest look about myself. That might be the reason, " Miss Johnston says.

Miss Johnston has pursued a variety of other careers as well. She has worked as a public relations agent, a photographer´s stylist, social secretary to the British ambassador and social editor for Washington Dossier magazine, among other things.

On top of that, there has always been the opera. Miss Johnston went to the opera for the first time when she was 9, to see "The Marriage of Figaro" at London´s Covent Garden.

"I love opera, " she says. "I´m lucky that it has became part of my life."


Miss Johnston´s files, with more than 900 entries, include judges, bankers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, economists and public relations people who do the work just for fun.

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