Life as a Supernumerary: An Insider’s View of The Magic Flute

In April I discovered one of the best kept secrets in all of opera-going. And that is the opportunity to be a supernumerary. Supers are the folks standing around holding spears, or the officers come to arrest the tenor, etc. They are typically a function of the set more than a character in the story.

I was invited to be one of fourteen supers in the Atlanta Opera’s The Magic Flute. This experience would turn out to be the operatic equivalent of what I imagine baseball fantasy camp must be like, except that at the end you get to play in four real games. And you are not playing with the superstars of yesteryear, but those of today and tomorrow.

People with beautiful, well-trained voices might survive the competitive auditions to join the highly respected Atlanta Opera Chorus. But the need for supers means the rest of us, including the vocally disabled such as myself, can strap on the pads and go in the game too.

I have never had any desire to call attention to myself on stage. Quite the opposite. But I learned that the stage is by orders of magnitude the best seat in the house. This became apparent the first night I had the privilege of kneeling in the shadows beside the Queen of the Night’s throne during her famous First Act aria. Kathleen Kim’s voice, only feet away, paralyzed my breathing and caused my eyes to fill up. It was a surreal moment. And I later had the thrill of describing the experience to Ms Kim as we walked up the stairs backstage to have our respective wigs removed. Her grin said she was one part amused and two parts pleased for me.

I imagine the main reason the Atlanta Opera isn’t flooded with requests to be a super is the month-long commitment to rehearsals (some held during normal working hours). I was particularly surprised at how many full-on rehearsals there were on consecutive days leading up to opening night. And at how many things were still being fixed and changed during those rehearsals. Time was quickly running out, but to avoid having to pay overtime, rehearsals ended abruptly at 11:00 each night.

During rehearsals (and performances) there is a lot of “hurry up and wait” for all cast members, but especially for supers with microscopic roles. I might practice my part for less than ten minutes during a four hour rehearsal. But the constant excitement kept me occupied every minute, even past my normal bedtime. I came away with a good sense of what directors and stage managers actually do and how long and hard they work.

The most appealing aspect of the rehearsals for this production was the opportunity to meet and listen to the world class principals up close – very close. Without exception, every one of them was absolutely amazing, from those singing regularly at the Met, to some wonderful local talent.
Initially, expecting hyperactive extroverts, half again normal size, I was slightly befuddled when I met them face to face. For instance, Ms. Kim is not much more than five feet tall but could effortlessly engulf the room with her literally stunning voice. While all of the principals were friendly, most seemed quieter and more reserved offstage than my pre-existing stereotype of the profession.

That is not to say that there were not some very engaging extroverts in the cast. Becca Kier (Papagena) jumps first to mind. She was largely responsible for talking me into being a super, though we had only met minutes earlier. Watching her in rehearsals I felt she didn’t have to practice becoming Papagena very hard, she already was Papagena, or at least Beccagena.

I especially enjoyed getting to know Nicole Cabell (Pamina). She is the operatic total package on and off stage. It is obvious to even the uppermost balcony that her voice is extremely beautiful and well trained, and her stage presence regal. But it was chatting one on one with a neophyte super that she really showed just how warm and genuine she is.

The final performance of The Magic Flute was a Sunday matinee. I read on Facebook that the crew began dismantling the set that same night. I had a very empty feeling the next morning as I looked at my calendar and did not see the blocks of rehearsals and performances that gave April such purpose. The month of May looked sort of bleak by comparison.

While it is sad to think that this production is gone forever, my tiny role entitled me to share in the pride of ownership of something large and very extraordinary. Many, many thanks to The Atlanta Opera for this opportunity!

When La bohème opens in October, I will be back in my seat in the front row of the first balcony. It will probably seem smaller, more confining and much further from the stage than I remembered. But having been a super I will now notice and be aware of so many things I never was before.

-John King

The inspirational Kathleen Kim as The Queen of the Night: