A Small Part at The New York City Opera

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02/26/2010

Neighborhood: Upper West Side

A Small Part at The New York City Opera
Snowflake by Andrew Magill

The only thing I never liked about performing at Lincoln Center was the fake snow. During the years I worked at New York City Opera as a “supernumerary,” or stage extra, the tiny bits of confetti used for winter weather effect bugged me. I would be acting away, as much as possible without lines, while the artificial flakes wafted down from above. I found it wholly unrealistic that they also wafted upwards, sideways, and on weird diagonals.

I was still a graduate student in the late 1980s when I arrived at City Opera via an audition notice in Backstage. After waiting in a long line that snaked around the New York State Theater, I was ushered through the stage entrance, two sets of glass doors set several steps down from street level.

Inside the theater, my fellow hopefuls and I were divided into groups of twenty-five and sent to a rehearsal hall, where we were instructed to step forward and state our name, age, and suit and shoe sizes. I was so inexperienced that I actually found this process thrilling. Age 22, suit 40 regular, shoe 9 1/2, I was hired on the spot, an accomplishment not lessened by a director later clarifying the job requirements. Just be on time, he told me, and don’t make trouble.

That I could do!

While my acting ambitions were to subsequently wax and wane, I never relinquished my part-time job at fine arts central. From Day One I grasped that the stage door was a charmed portal, one separating not just backstage from outsiders, but also real life from grand fantasy. There was life outside that door, and life inside that door. I preferred the latter, a place where even death was accompanied by jewels, gowns, and an aria, generally followed by rapturous applause.

In La bohème, I served in the banda, a military band entering just as Mimi and Rodolfo proclaimed their love for each other. The other banda members and I wore red jackets with gold braid and red hats, making us look like we had wandered in from The Music Man. All twelve of us were dressed alike, except for the drum major who had a white feather in his hat instead of a red one like the rest of us.

One evening, the drum major called in sick and I was told that I was going to be wearing the white-feathered hat. I found this promotion terrifying. Having long employed a follow-the-guy-in-front-of-me routine, I was frightened at the prospect of being the guy in front of everyone else.

Before my entrance, I gripped my baton tightly and tried to compose myself. My consternation must have shown on my face because an assistant director gave me a shake and a wide smile. “Relax,” she whispered. “Remember, it’s Christmas!” She was right; the scene indeed took place on Christmas Eve. Something about this was immensely comforting, and my heart soared that night as I led the banda.

Later City Opera introduced another production of Bohème, one in which I enjoyed more stage time. In my new role, listed on the backstage callboard as Handsome Soldier, I had a flirtatious moment with Mimi until Rodolfo called her away. I extrapolated my bit part to the hilt, so much so that the singer playing Rodolfo took to physically shoving me aside because otherwise the opera would have ground to a halt.

Once, a friend of mine was visiting from Japan and I brought her to the show to watch from the wings. Although I worried that she might be bored, she was enthralled. As we exited the stage door, she stopped and looked back at the building wistfully. “You come here every night?” she asked.

Two or three times a week, I replied diffidently.

“You are so lucky,” she exclaimed, “it’s like a carnival in there!”

This season, City Opera has suspended operations so that renovations could be made at the theater. In other words, there have been no performances, no carnival.

I suppose I’ve missed working at the opera factory, because recently I was passing by the State Theater and decided to peek inside. A heavy tarp draped on the building reminded me that, thanks to a generous donor, it’s now the David H. Koch Theater. I walked down familiar steps and through the first set of glass doors at the stage entrance.

The smell of freshly-microwaved chicken greeted me as I caught the eye of the security guard on duty. He was an older black gentleman who, like me, had worked in this building for years. I hesitated before him, suddenly conscious of the fact that I had no legitimate reason to be in here.

Perhaps sensing my trepidation, the guard looked at me expectantly.

“Hi,” I said. “So, how are those renovations going? Have they done much work?”

Mostly in the orchestra pit, the guard responded.
I felt awkward. “Oh. Well, I just stopped by…”

I wanted the guard to wave me through like usual, or to smile and say Go on in, take a look. He didn’t. He seemed to be waiting to see whether I’d push through the doors.

Yet I just stood there uncertainly, like someone who had showed up for a party on the wrong night. When a UPS guy appeared behind me with a stack of boxes, I decided to leave. I mumbled something to the effect that I would come back next time.

Yeah, come back next time, the guard agreed.

I can’t say that he turned me away, since I hadn’t attempted to enter, but I still felt deflated. I walked up to street level as a wave of longing came over me. Just then, I missed my Boheme Christmases, my banda, and Mimi. Sighing, I moved off into the chilly air. A light snow had started, and I noticed that the flakes were swirling down, upwards, sideways, and on weird diagonals.

RAUL A. REYES has written for the New York Times and USA Today.
 

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