San Francisco Opera | A Tale of Two Princes: My First Time as a Supernumerary

A Tale of Two Princes: My First Time as a Supernumerary

I had only seen two operas from standing room — Tosca and Otello — before I was actually in one.

A friend from a college acting class saw an ad in New West magazine calling for people to be extras or supernumeraries at San Francisco Opera. We were puzzled. Why advertise? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to wear a glamorous costume? And perform on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House? I later discovered the reason for the ad was that the 1977 season featured a lot of big shows — Aida, Faust, Das Rheingold, and Turandot — that required a lot of “supers.”

We went to a sign-up meeting at the opera house. We were measured and photographed and filled out a preference form to indicate the shows we wanted to do. I checked every opera that called for women supers. A few days later I got a call. Would I like to be in Turandot? I didn’t know much about it, but I said I sure would!

The 1977 Turandot has become legendary. It featured a dream cast of Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé, and Leona Mitchell in an over-the-top production directed by a much sought-after talent at the time, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. No one who saw it ever forgot it. Ponnelle’s sets almost always featured some big symbolic “thing” in the center of the stage. In Turandot, it was a large, gold Buddha-like statue that was flanked on either side by sets of stairs. My role, along with two other women, was to enter from a door underneath the statue to offer Pavarotti — playing the part of Princess Turandot’s anonymous suitor Prince Calaf — a chest of gold and jewels in exchange for his name. It did not require a lot of acting, as our backs were to the audience most of the time we were on stage, but it did require strength, agility, and the ability to make a quick exit. These are, I would come to learn, basic “super” skills.

What made this show especially unforgettable was not just the cast. It was the audience. The U.K.’s Prince Charles, years before his famous marriage to Lady Diana Spencer, attended opening night. Security was laughably lax by today’s standards. We only had to show a flimsy paper pass issued by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) in addition to our usual opera ID cards at the stage door. There was a glancing search of bags and none of bodies. It seems unthinkable today. There were SFPD officers and British consulate personnel wandering around backstage, and that was about it. Make-up artists for chorus members and supers, at that time, worked at counters underneath the stage, directly in the back of the orchestra pit. When Prince Charles entered the center box accompanied by the city’s chief of protocol, Cyril Magnin, the orchestra struck up “God Save the Queen.” Everyone in the make-up area rushed over to the orchestra pit doors to catch a glimpse of the prince. If any audience members had glanced down, they would have seen our half painted faces peering up. We hadn’t planned it, and then-general director Kurt Herbert Adler certainly would not have approved, but we did it anyway.

Our group took the stage in the third act. We came on a few bars after Pavarotti sang what was to become his signature aria, “Nessun Dorma.” To this day, I can remember listening to him from within the set’s wooden support structure, lit only by a bare bulb and the flashlight of a production assistant. We heard our cue, scurried out with our treasure, and exited stage left. It probably took all of two minutes. Afterwards, we were told that, if we stayed in costume and remained backstage, we would be able to see Prince Charles when he came back to greet the singers. So, of course, everyone did. He was, at least in this instance, a prince charming. He complimented the performance and joined in when the chorus sang “Happy Birthday” to one of singers. I stood with a group of supers and children’s chorus members. He paused in front of us, smiled, made some remarks about our costumes and make-up, and then he was gone.

I left that night thinking, “This opera thing is great! You get to hear Pavarotti sing up close, and Prince Charles comes to opening night!” Many years and many Turandots and Aidas and Bohèmes and Rheingolds and Rigolettos later, I now know that not every production is like that night. Yet even ordinary productions have their moments of magic. That’s why I’ve been a supernumerary for almost four decades. San Francisco Opera has been a presence in my life longer than almost anything else: longer than my mercifully brief careers in banking and retail, and even longer than my actual career as an educator. It has seen me through the Loma Prieta earthquake — I was supposed to be in Idomeneo that night — plus two Gulf Wars and the 9/11 attacks. I have made deep and enduring friendships with people I would otherwise never have known. And for some brilliant and sublime performances, I’ve had one of the best seats in the house: the stage.

This is why the pandemic is different. The opera — a constant in many of our lives — has paused. Yes, there are films of productions to be seen online. But as welcome as they are, it’s not the same as experiencing each production firsthand. I want to be there, on that stage. I know I will be again someday. There will be another Turandot for me. And just like that night in 1977, everything will shine.

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