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The term's original use, from the Latin supernumerarius, meant someone paid to appear on stage in crowd scenes or in the case of opera as non-singing small parts. The word can still be found used for such in theatre and opera. It is the equivalent of "extra" in the motion picture industry. Any established opera company will have a supernumerary core of artists to enhance the opera experience. The Metropolitan Opera (Met) in New York and the Washington National Opera(WNO) are known for the high profile and seasoned supernumeraries. The WNO saw its supernumerary golden age under the direction of English actress Jennifer Crier Johnston who was supernumerary director for eight years (1998-2006). Ms. Johnston belonged to the select movie extras that appeared in classic Hollywood movies such as My Fair Lady, The Unsinkable Mollie Brown and The Sound of Music. The Washington Times  ran an exhaustive article on supernumeraries in November 2002 in which Ms. Johnston describes in detail the fine craft of a supernumerary in the opera:
"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 was herself cast by the director 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."
The WNO has had some major supernumerary personalities on stage such as U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ginsberg and Kennedy who made their last appearance in the opening of Strauss comedic opera Die Fledermaus. New promising and exciting supernumeraries at the Washington National Opera include: Andrea McPherson, Cheryl Dixon, David Brindley, David Mead, Emily Cohen, Eric Schultz, Felipe Lagos, Greg Nero, Joe & Linda Marshall, John Tinpe, Karyn-Siobhan Robinson, Rey Rivera, Samantha Smith, and Toni Smiley. Other famed supernumeraries include Patrizia DiZebba, a veteran of the WNO stage for the last 25 years, Michael Walker, a recent addition to the self-proclaimed "A" list of supernumeraries that included Victor Yager and Fernando Varisco. In 2005 Walker, Yager and Varisco were invited by the well known opera director Cindy Oxberry, who has been assistant director for the WNO for over 10 years, to work in a brand new production of The Washington Savoyards'The Mikado. Oxberry's style and force were obvious in these performances and the Washington Post agreed that "The Savoyards fully captured the energy of Arthur Sullivan's inimitable melodiousness and the thrust of William Schwenck Gilbert's satiric dialogue, riddled -- perhaps a little too obviously -- with updated political jabs.".
Typical supernumerary work
Supernumeraries are usually amateur character artists who train under professional direction to create a believable scene. They almost become part of the props and give a sense of credibility to scenes where crowds, court assistants, lackeys, peasants or a variety of period characters are needed. Ms. Johnston's style emerged through her experiences in Hollywood and the British theater and she coached all of her supernumeraries until the character, the movements, pose and demeanor matched the period of the opera being presented. Rehearsals can last from 2 weeks to several months depending on the complexity of the performances. Some operas require over 50 supernumeraries. Work is assigned according to the ability to look the part and in many cases by the costume size since many of the productions are borrowed from other major opera houses. The Varisco-Johnston style of "supering" emphasizes an understated performance that doesn't "steal focus from the main actors" but it is still vibrant and effusive. Other styles have evolved like the method acting of Yager and Walker. The repertory at any established opera house certainly includes operas with lots of supernumeraries. Setting a record, with 227 supers, was a new production of Prokofiev's War and Peace, which had its last performance of the season on March 19 2006. Other operas at the Met and other great opera houses awash in supers include Aida (the triumphal march with 165) and Puccini's La Bohème (the Café Momus scene with 125), according to François Giuliani, press director of the Met. (Those numbers do not include soloists, members of the chorus and dancers.) But the chance of being a super is pretty much limited to those with experience and people who can take direction, said Bob Diamond, administrator of supernumeraries at the Met. We don't take people off the street, he added. It is commonly accepted that an opera will use 10 men as extras for every woman. That's opera, and we have no control, Mr. Diamond said. The commitment in terms of time can range from as little as one two-hour rehearsal and a dress rehearsal -- but supers do have to agree to take part in a minimum number of performances -- to as much as five hours a day for four or five weeks for, say, a newly staged opera.
Supernumerary work keeps evolving as operas evolve. There has been a merger of techniques used in Broadway, movies and opera. A good illustration of this type of merging will be seen for the second time at the WNO 2006 Fall opera season with the presentation of Puccini's Madama Butterfly where Polish director Trellinsky, originally a movie director, presented his innovative production which used an extensive cast of supernumeraries as Japanese fishermen, Yamadories and live statues. The Washington Bladetook notice of these statues and described them effectively:
"A wall of Japanese statues come to life and drop flower petals from the heights of the opera stage at Pinkerton’s impending return..."Having said this, directors sometimes take too many artistic liberties with some operas and the final result is not what is to be expected. This can be illustrated with Marta Domingo's production of La Traviata presented at the Washington National Opera in May 2004. Supernumerary Varisco played the part of death during the last act and this is what the Washington Post said about this supernumerary character:
"Stage director Marta ("Mrs.") Domingo seems to have taken the Hippocratic oath as her inspiration for this "Traviata": She does no harm. Her conception is pretty generic, though -- ballrooms and sickbeds, bright lights and heavy curtains -- and the few directorial "touches" I could discern (the shadow of death marching by with a scythe outside Violetta's window) were not especially effective. Imagine a production, any production, of "La Traviata" and you'll probably have a pretty good idea of this one."
Supernumeraries can add a very dramatic effect when they are properly used in grand opera productions such as Aida and Le Cid. The logistics of managing such a corps require a supernumerary coordinator with experience and talent. In the case of Le Cid supernumeraries had to be trained for six weeks by a professional stunt expert in the art of medieval fighting brought from Spain specifically for this purpose. Opera critics can note the effect of a sizeable supernumerary corps:
"The stage layout is sensible but compelling--a set of ascending stairs running deep upstage, sometimes topped by a very impressive squadron of cavalry in full armor. Crosses, gates and moving side panels delineate different scenes. De Ana uses his very large chorus, supplemented by athletic supernumeraries, with precision: They move quickly, creating striking tableaux that bristle with bellicose energy."
"For a comprehensive look at what is involved as a supernumerary on a practical daily basis from preliminary rehearsals all the way thru final performances you can listen to an in-depth supernumerary interview made by WAMU.org radio station http://wamu.org/programs/mc/08/12/26.php#24406. The interview states that you can usually recognize the opera star in the title character. But who was that guy playing the prison guard? Or that woman NEXT to the opera star playing a prostitute? Many of these opera extras – also known as 'supernumeraries' – are typical citizens; think tank employees, lawyers, maybe even your neighbor. Ginger Moored visited the set of the opera Carmen to find out what being a supernumerary was all about. "
Examples of supernumerary character roles
- femme fatale
- town drunk
- hooker with a heart of gold
- scene stealer
- best friend
- ^ 'Patrick Butters. Life onstage as opera 'super. Washington Times, 2002
- ^ The Savoyards' 'Mikado.' Washington Post, November 2005.
- ^ Paul Freireich. 'Being a Super at the Met.' The New York Times, February 26, 2007
- ^ Greg Marzullo. 'Operatic greatness.' The Washington Blade. November 10, 2006
- ^ Tim Page. 'Traviata' 1.0 WNO Stages Verdi's Original Version. Washington Post. May 10, 2004
- ^ Philip Kennicott. 'Le Cid: Grander Than Ever.' Washington Post. November 1, 1999
- ^ For a comprehensive look at what is involved as a supernumerary on a practical daily basis from preliminary rehearsals all the way thru final performances you can listen to supernumerary interviews made by WAMU.org radio station http://wamu.org/programs/mc/08/12/26.php#24406. If you caught the Washington National Opera's version of Carmen this fall, chances are you recognized international superstar Denyce Graves as the title character. But who was that guy playing the prison guard? Or that woman NEXT to Carmen playing a prostitute? Many of these opera extras – also known as 'supernumeraries' – are typical Washingtonians; think tank employees, lawyers, maybe even your neighbor. Ginger Moored visited the set of Carmen to find out what being a supernumerary was all about.