It’s Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and Christopher Locklear, 34, stands in the darkened wings, watching the Washington Opera production of Mozart’s “Idomeneo.”He’s no singer. He’s no dancer. He’s not even a stagehand. Mr. Locklear is a laboratory specialist. Yet he is about to walk onstage, into the bright lights and garish sets, to join the likes of Placido Domingo and face a packed house.
That’s the story of, and the glory of, the opera “supernumerary,” the face in the crowd onstage who by day is the average Joe or Jane but by night becomes a fantasy figure a peasant woman in the mob, a warrior with a spear, a dead body if necessary.
“Supers” are the filling in the opera, the background. They act but do not sing. They are not paid much, perhaps $200 for the entire run of an opera, but the excitement of being onstage or glorying in the electric thrill of live opera pulls them in.
“I always say supernumerary is a glorified word for an extra,” Mr. Locklear says, grinning.
“Idomeneo,” which uses 18 men as supers, eight women and one boy, is Mr. Locklear’s fifth opera as a super. At 6 feet 2 inches, the Columbia Heights resident says he has been “typecast” as a guard. That is what he plays tonight, in leather shoulder pads, leather leggings, brown shoes and pink tights.
Tonight he has discovered something new nerves.
“This show is the first time I’ve gotten nervous,” Mr. Locklear says. “I’m carrying this kid in my arms up this flight of stairs,” he says laughing through the sentence, “and I have to make sure I don’t drop him.”
It’s the first time he has had to do something besides just stand around, and the electric thrill has gone up a notch. “In one rehearsal, I actually slipped,” he says, adding quickly, “but I didn’t fall.”
The “kid” stands next to him: 47-pound Bethesda third-grader Henry Hodges, another super. He plays a corpse, and he looks it. Henry’s Beatle haircut is matted with hair gel and fake blood. His tiny, wiry body also is swathed with fake blood because his character in “Idomeneo” was kicked off a boat, washed up to shore and then given up for sacrifice. Mr. Locklear enters the scene with Henry in his arms, carries him down a set of stairs and carefully lays the boy on a slab.
The blue-eyed Henry is quite the professional; this Christmas he will reprise his role from last year as Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre. His ease shows backstage, where he is running around near the dressing rooms before the performance, wearing blue slippers and what amounts to just a loincloth. “I’m not cold,” he says. “My dad is half-British.”
Many of the 1,008 supers registered with the Washington Opera performed onstage in high school and college but went on to other careers. Supers’ occupations run the gamut: doctor, lawyer, judge, engineer, White House official, mountain climber, chauffeur, child psychologist, hotelier.
Fernando Varisco, 36, another “Idomeneo” guard, lives in Dupont Circle and works for Intelsat, a telecommunications firm. This is his 15th opera in five years. The dark-eyed, constantly smiling Mr. Varisco has no performing experience, but he did have an Italian grandfather who, he says, played opera constantly, until “somehow it burned in my head.”
Then there is Debi Lucato of Arlington, an assistant director of sales at the Hilton Washington and Capitol Hilton who is in her first super role for the opera. Ms. Lucato and a handful of other female supers play battered Trojan prisoners. She wears a long, ragged robe and has tucked her long blond hair under a turbanlike hat of faded gold, which she calls her “ayatollah hat.”
For this three-act opera, the women appear only in the first act’s first scene. But they do a lot. The female prisoners come running in, scared. When Prince Idamante, son of Idomeneo, the embattled king of Crete, frees them from their dank, dirty jail, they fling themselves joyously about the stage and hug each other.
“So it’s not too far of an acting job from the corporate world,” Ms. Lucato says. “It wasn’t too hard to pretend that I was happy to get my chains off.”
Standing backstage, she laughs at the irony but is told quickly to keep her voice down by a petite woman with a colorful set of half glasses buried in her tightly curled red hair. This is Jennifer Crier Johnston, the supernumerary coordinator.
Ms. Johnston signs up the supers, auditions them when necessary, shepherds them around on performance night and sometimes stands in for them. She has often donned a costume when a super has been sick or has gotten caught in traffic.
Ms. Johnston, who is also a public relations associate for the Opera, runs a tight ship. Once she told a super he had to shave his beard for a part. When he refused, Ms. Johnston whipped out a pair of scissors. The beard disappeared by showtime.
“I told him I wasn’t kidding,” Ms. Johnston says in her sharp British accent.
Another time she was watching on the backstage video monitor as, to her horror, two maidens were making an entrance three were supposed to enter. Frantically, Ms. Johnston hunted down the third maiden backstage. The super had a good excuse: She hadn’t heard the call because the loudspeaker was damaged.
“It’s embarrassing to hear your name on the loudspeaker,” says super Deborah Flickinger of Gaithersburg, who works for U.S. Customs.
The loudspeaker blares constantly throughout the evening. If it’s not broadcasting the performance, it’s screaming, “Places for Act 3” or “Mr. Domingo to the stage, please.”
Supers have been fired. Ms. Johnston hesitates when asked why. “Their behavior is inappropriate,” she says finally. Other times, she says, the supers may not be up to the physical demands of some operas. In “Le Cid,” supers had to jump up and down, march, and climb up stairs, and that can wear out someone unschooled in theatrical athletics.
“Getting guys to march is always difficult,” Ms. Johnston says. “Americans don’t have to do national service, so they never learned to march.”
Then there are supers who simply don’t like all the waiting around.
“Well, that’s the name of the game,” Ms. Johnston says, “we all know that. Sorry.”
The Baltimore Opera uses supers, as does the Summer Theater Opera Company at Catholic University. Neither pays supers, but both give supers tickets to dress rehearsals or shows. According to Ms. Johnston, some of the Washington Opera’s supers also work with the Baltimore Opera, but the travel time keeps most of them here.
Various ballet companies come to town and need supernumeraries. When the Kirov Ballet and Opera came to Washington in February, Ms. Johnston cast the opera supers.
“Which was very interesting,” she says, “because no one spoke any English, and I don’t speak Russian.”
Four years ago the Opera had no supernumerary coordinator. Ms. Johnston told the Opera it needed someone to do that work. Opera officials agreed, and tapped her. She says she loves it. Her attitude shows in her name for herself: Mother Jennifer.
Average Joes and Janes who yearn for the stage find it easy to sign up to be supers: A prospect simply sends in a photo and provides measurements. As with anything related to the theater, however, getting onstage is no breeze. With 1,008 waiting supers in her files, Ms. Johnston can pick and choose, and she winnows down the candidates according to size, talent, costume fit and sex. Only one-fifth of the super roles Ms. Johnston casts are women.
“If women act up, I’ve got tons of women who I can call up,” she says. All of a sudden, the female supers standing about become mysteriously quiet. “Oh, they know, they know,” she says and laughs, as does everyone else.
Ms. Johnston keeps her eyes open constantly for super candidates and says the best place to find super talent is “either at the bars or at church.” She found Mr. Locklear at church.
“She came up to me and asked me, ‘How tall are you?’” Mr. Locklear says. “She didn’t even say hello.”
Having the looks and the ability to fit into the proper clothes, however, can go only so far when it comes to being a good supernumerary. Ms. Johnston expects the supers to be professional because, despite being nonunion with nonunion wages, they are still actors.
Supers, in fact, get direction throughout the performance. “They notice everything,” says Mr. Varisco, who once, playing a guard, was told he wasn’t waving people in correctly. Soft-spoken Gene Tighe, who in “Idomeneo” plays one of several sailors who are spat out of the mouth of Neptune, was informed that his band of sailors wasn’t running off fast enough.
“A lot of people have opera glasses, and they look at people’s faces,” Ms. Lucato says. “And when you are onstage, you actually have to act. If you sit there and smile and act goofy, well, then you miss the whole genre of the scene.
“It’s not Oscar-caliber, but that’s not why we’re here. If the super acts too much, then it’s overacting and seem ridiculous.”
Ms. Johnston says she doesn’t cast the overacters unless a director needs one. Once Ms. Johnston, with one particularly exuberant super in mind, asked the director of an opera if “Yiddish theater” was what she was seeking. “Perfect,” came the reply, and a perfect match was made.
As delightful as being onstage is to these amateurs, the costumes have their own allure. For a few days, these doctors and lawyers can play dress-up as if it’s Halloween, and no one will call the cops on them. Some of the elaborate costumes come from the Metropolitan Opera in New York or from companies abroad.
Of course, the female prisoners from “Idomeneo” find no thrill in their convicts’ outfits. Instead of reveling in bright pantaloons, they ponder the mysteries of these bland prisoners’ robes: If these smocks were from the expensive and much ballyhooed Met, why were the zippers boldly placed in front? The hats too not just the turbanish “ayatollah” hat, but wide bamboo rice hats as well were examined thoroughly in the women’s upstairs dressing room.
“I don’t think we’re going to get discovered in these costumes,” Ms. Flickinger says.
Rehearsals for supers begin several weeks before the performance. They usually are from 7 to 10 p.m. on weekdays and 1 to 10 p.m. on weekends, but the schedule depends on the opera and its particular needs.
A fine line exists between super and bit player. At times, it takes more than holding a spear correctly; at times, it takes acting. Ms. Johnston cast herself as the companion to the fiery countess in this season’s Washington Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Queen of Spades” because the performer who played the countess changed her approach to the companion every night.
“I knew it had to be someone who could act, someone who could take this Russian lady,” she says. “You never knew what she was going to do. I had to react to whatever she did.”
Other times, a super can go way overboard. Ms. Lucato recalls performing in “Faust” for the Florida Grand Opera in Miami, playing, along with several other women, a courtesan to the devil. In one “really sensual scene” that found the courtesans massaging Faust as he lay on a bed, she says, one of the courtesan supers lost all self-control. She jumped on Faust and began to make love to him.
“She said, ‘Well, this is my one moment, and I’m goin’ for it,’” Ms. Lucato says. “She wasn’t even supposed to be near him, and she just out of nowhere jumped on him.
“She was gone after that.”
“Of course she was,” snaps an aghast Ms. Johnston.
“Once you’re out there, there’s nothing that can protect anybody,” Ms. Lucato says. “So you have to get people knowledgeable in drama and acting.”
It is a delicate balance. A super is not a principal or even a member of the chorus. Any show needs crowds and extras, but a super must fill the role with humility.
“We’ve come to realize that no one is looking at us,” says Ms. Flickinger, who plays another prisoner. “We’re just the white noise.”
Or the “live flats,” as Mr. Tighe calls supers.
Jennifer Hagerty, 23, of Southwest, takes it a step further. An “Idomeneo” prisoner, she says supers complete the scene but must not get in the way of the chorus or of anyone important and must get off the stage without disturbing anyone “so that everyone can see the maestro.”
Still, supers get edgy as they must with all those people out there sitting in expensive seats, applauding every time Placido Domingo opens his mouth. Lois Gochnauer, a District native who is a Foreign Service officer, gets nervous every time she goes onstage, even though at one time she was a dancer with the National Ballet of Canada.
“I mean, not a lot, but a little nervous,” she says. “I don’t pay attention to the audience because I’m doing what I am doing onstage. Except I have to say that when I was in ‘Don Carlo,’ [the director] said, ‘Use the audience. Snub them, too.’ So that was fun.”
Sometimes what goes on backstage beats the onstage action. Ms. Gochnauer says that during the opera’s run of “Don Carlo” last year, she was senior adviser on violence against women at the State Department. The opera’s soprano had discovered that.
“As we were coming on, she said, ‘Oh, you’re doing such wonderful things, congratulations,’ and then she broke into this aria,” she says. “I’ll bet the audience doesn’t know that.”
Supers see principals exit the stage and immediately get mad or start laughing. They might rip off their costumes. Onstage, they might talk to supers or make faces when their backs are to the audience. Offstage, the principals might wave or make faces to make the onstage supers laugh.
“It might be a way of dispelling their own tension,” says the redheaded Donna Kepler of Arlington. Ms. Kepler, 44, is a secretary for the Communications Workers of America.
Then there is the biggest backstage perk of all that comes with the job. Tenor-conductor-artistic director Placido Domingo, who plays the embattled king in “Idomeneo,” seems to be as much of a draw for the supernumeraries as he is for Washington Opera subscribers.
“He’s been an idol of mine since I was a little child,” Ms. Lucato says, “and when he first walked into rehearsal, I thought I was going to faint.”
The supers praise Mr. Domingo for his skill with people, so critical in this political town: He remembers people’s names, poses for countless pictures and gives the entire company a pep talk, even if he is not in the production. It inspires awe.
“He remembered my name and that I was from Miami,” Ms. Lucato says. “Before the show, he walked in, gave me a grab on my arm and said, ‘Have a good show, Miami.’
“Here I am a super, nothing in the world of opera I could sweep the floor and here’s the greatest singer, in my mind, telling me to have a good show. It was really something.”