Go Deeper

Inside The Opera: My Life As A Supernumerary

Posted April 24th, 2012

Sean Cummings is a young Philadelphia-based theater artist and a regular contributor.

Our supernumerary at right, holding steady. Photo by Kelly & Massa Photography.

The word supernumerary comes from the Latin word supernumerarius, which, in the opera world, refers to “a person no one cares about and is often overlooked,” or more commonly, “a silent actor.” Supers serve as extras to enhance scenes but are basically moving furniture. As appealing as this sounds, it is not something I ever aspired to do. But as fate would have it, I managed to become a supernumerary for The Opera Company of Philadelphia.

As an actor in Philadelphia, I spend a great deal of time looking for auditions. Consequently, I spend a great deal of time auditioning for shows I’ll never be cast in and even more time heading to bars to spend my rent money on drinks. What don’t I spend much time doing? Thinking about the opera. That is, until I read an audition post calling for young male actors. Of course, I have seen many similar posts—but since this one did not require me to send in nude photographs, I thought it fine to proceed. I was surprised to discover that I did not need to audition to be cast, rather, I needed only have a successful fitting. So, I headed to the costume department. After trying on three detailed costumes (soldier, sailor, and servant) I was officially cast.

I was not sure what to expect when I arrived at my first rehearsal. I think of myself as very professional but I had never worked on a production with a million-dollar budget and an international cast. My first thought was to “not disappoint.” When rehearsal began, the director and stage manager went over the synopsis of the show in detail with all the supers. They provided diagrams of what the set would look like and what our role would be and before I could ask a question, the rehearsal pianist was in place and we began to stage scenes. My first instinct was to ask for a script and write down my blocking. Then it hit me. There is no script. There is only music—and I don’t read music—and it’s in a foreign language to boot. I had no idea how I would remember any of my staging.

Then I was introduced to my lifesavers: the assistant stage managers.

The invaluable ASMs [not pronounced azzummz] are split between stage right and stage left. I did my best to remember the staging once I started to familiarize myself with the music but if I was ever off for a moment, one of my lifesavers was there to save me. They gave me cues while I was off stage, on stage, and even at home, which l am still confused about.

The rehearsal process was fast. After two weeks in the rehearsal hall, we were on the mainstage at the Academy of Music. I was amazed at the production value, but even more amazed with  the singers. Their voices were shocking to hear up close, and most of the principal singers were incredibly kind. However, I was introduced to one diva who never spoke, rolled eyes often, and was generally unpleasant. At first I thought she was foreign and did not speak because she did not understand English. But I learned otherwise. One night she shouldered me into a curtain on stage and said, “Excuse me.”

Opening night came and it was exhilarating. I walked through the halls and I could hear the singers warming up through their dressing room doors. The wig-and-makeup room was filled with chorus members being transformed into different people. And as I passed the stage crew, they were arguing over who was supposed to move the chest in Act II. Over the intercom I heard, “We are five minute to places, five minutes to places.” Backstage looked like a nightmare: set pieces, props, crew, singers everywhere. I headed to the wings to prepare for the show, and then came, “We’re going black.” The lights were turned off. I looked at a monitor and saw the maestro had landed in the pit. Then, a roar of applause.

And it occurred to me, I may be a silent actor but I finally have people calling me super on a regular basis.

–Sean Cummings

The Opera Company of Philadelphia is currently presenting Manon Lescaut with Michelle Johnson as the title character. At The Academy of Music, Broad & Locusts Sts.
Wednesday, April 25, at 7:30pm
Friday, April 27, at 8pm
Sunday, April 29, at 2:30pm