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Carmen chameleon 

Jeanie Riess joins the New Orleans Opera to get a backstage look at the operatic life

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Photo by Cheryl Gerber

It's cold backstage at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Huddled in my 19th-century cigarette girl costume, I share some Nilla Wafers with a picador named Jacque while we both wait to go onstage. Men nearby hold still as makeup artists apply eyeliner, and the voice of the mezzo-soprano onstage crackles through speakers in the busy hallway.

  Jacque and I are supernumeraries in the New Orleans Opera Association's production of Georges Bizet's classic, Carmen.

  When the opera sent out a call for supernum-eraries earlier this year, I didn't know what the word meant. I looked it up. One definition read, "not enumerated among the regular components of a group." Its synonyms are excess, extra, spare and (my personal favorite) redundant. What it really means is an extra — a nonsinging role.

  I've been in a lot of plays before — including some pretty small parts — and I've been the bench warmer on many a sports team. But I've never been intentionally redundant (at least, as far as I know), and that anonymity appealed to me.

  I didn't know anything about the New Orleans Opera (the oldest opera in the United States) except for those performances I attended in elementary school, during which my classmates and I giggled at seeing people kiss on stage. Sure, you can review an opera. But being in an opera, I thought, was bound to provide a completely different perspective.

  Even if I was redundant.

The opera's production manager, Deborah Jo-Barrett, was welcoming, but after a few emails I started to realize the true weight of what I'd signed up to do. "We need a super female to be a mayor's wife in the procession in Act IV," she wrote, "but the more important role is that of Manuelita, who is in a fight with Carmen inside the cigarette factory in Act I, is cut by Carmen offstage and the fight carries onstage and Manuelita will be blocked to get dunked in a wash basin. If you are up for that, let me know asap."

  That is how I found myself in a black, Amy Winehouse-ish wig made of 100 percent human hair and an off-the-shoulder 1820's negligee, leaning against a wall eating Nilla Wafers with Jacque.

Carmen transformation
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Carmen transformation

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  As Manuelita, my job was to limp onstage with a bloody gash on my face. As Carmen — played by the incredible mezzo-soprano Geraldine Chauvet — defended herself from the law, I would attack her, screaming "Carmencita!" at the top of my lungs.

  Carmen would then push me to my knees, grab me by the hair and dunk my head in a bucket of water — whereupon I would throw my head back, spraying water across the stage. That was my first part.

  My second part was to walk across the stage as the mayor's wife in a different wig (this one more Tina Fey in that Saturday Night Live commercial for mom jeans) and a blood-red Spanish hoop skirt and nod at people walking by me. But my real glory was in Act I.

Jacque was a Playboy bunny "about 100 years ago" in Kansas City, Missouri and New York City. She first heard opera in New Orleans. "These people are so friendly, and it was so beautiful, I kept coming back every month," she says. "I volunteer at the Mahalia Jackson, so I've seen a couple of the operas, and I kept asking, 'How do you get to be an extra?' And they said, 'It's called a supernumerary.'"

  Jacque thinks she was cast as a male picador because of the way she spells her name. She's petite, so her costume hardly fits her, but she laughs it off and adjusts her sequined cap. "This is so much fun!" she tells me. "I've been wanting to do this for the last five years!"

  We huddle close, the two extras, trying not to get in anyone's way. A dozen children dressed as French peasants run through the hallway to line up stage right.

One of the best things about being in an opera is that everything you do self-consciously and diminutively during your normal, understated, boring life you get to do about 400 times bigger onstage. If you're walking and gently nodding in Act IV, you really get to nod and take sweeping, dramatic steps across the stage. During one of the rehearsals, while blocking my Manuelita scene, director Brad Dalton directed me: "You're kind of wiping your brow ... you know, looking like you're in an opera." It wasn't until I got onstage for the first time that I truly understood what he meant.

  If you are a person who is inclined naturally to sing along to music, it is very difficult to be a supernumerary. After just two weeks of nightly rehearsals, I wanted so badly to sing along with Carmen and the chorus, under the direction of Carol Rausch — but as a supernumerary, my squeaky falsetto was not needed among the lilting voices that had been rehearsing the music for months and, in some cases, years. (My bike ride home down St. Charles Avenue, however, proved a fine venue for "Habanera.") But even if you're not allowed to sing, being a supernumerary is the best way to watch an opera.

  "The audience is missing half the show," Michael Weber told me. Weber, a fellow supernumerary, started his career in Washington, D.C., where tickets to see the opera cost $180, and a friend told him they needed people to play soldiers in Aida. "You're seeing all the rehearsals," he said, "You're seeing all the diva drama, then you're onstage and they're singing! That's how I really started to fall in love with opera."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

  Weber was right. Being backstage, seeing the hundreds of people it takes to put on a production like Carmen, from makeup artists to actors to props, and witnessing from a few feet away the immeasurable talent of New Orleans native Bryan Hymel — who played Don Jose, Carmen's lover who eventually murders her — was enough to turn me into a devotee.

Don and Linda Guillot have been doing wigs and makeup for operas near and far since 1996. This was their 11th Carmen, and they say the process is different than it used to be. Don applies red, sticky gel to my face, then brushes it with black paint to make it look like a deep wound. This is where Carmen cuts me.

  "They've gone to a much more realistic look in recent years," Don says, not just about Carmen, but about all of the operas on which he and Linda work. "It used to be that you couldn't recognize people when they walked out of here. ... Like, Madame Butterfly is supposed to be a 15-year-old, but sometimes she'll be a 45-year-old singer, and 225 pounds. So we would do the face that we wanted (in the center) and then darken the rest out. And it was always like they were wearing a mask, but they would look quite different when they went out there."

  As for how they prepare themselves for making people look like 19th-century Spaniards, Linda says they learn the story of whatever opera they're working on, then go from there. "As it gets closer, we talk to the director and see what he wants, we meet the performer. ... That's why you see us at rehearsals so much."

  Amanda Bravender, who's in the next room pinning wigs and painting on eyebrows with Adrienne Tenhundfeld, says it's the research that's made her appreciate opera. "I feel like there's always something to learn," Bravender says. "Carmen I enjoy now because I've done the show four times. But when I do a new show, I have to do so much research. Period hairstyles, period makeup. If I try to make someone look Spanish, I need to bring in those characteristics in my makeup.

  "Carmen might be dressed similarly in every production, because it's tradition," she adds. "So you kind of want to stick to what's traditional. It depends on the director and the company you're working for. The audience, a lot of times, is so much older, and when they come in they want to see what Carmen is supposed to be."

  "When you do get creative with the opera, a lot of people tend to not like it," Tenhundfeld says. "It's like when you have a favorite book and you're afraid when they're going to make a movie out of it."

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But it's the sincere, unabashed passion of the entire cast that made me realize how impressive opera — and particularly the New Orleans Opera Association — is. The writer Jonathan Franzen points out that "anything that betrays real passion is, by definition, uncool," and opera nerds, with their intense love for the art, already have had to overcome its obscurity, making their devotion that much less "cool" — and that much more interesting and inspiring.

  Take the members of Carmen's chorus. These were people who dedicated four and five hours of their days to learning music, waiting around at rehearsals, getting fitted for multiple costumes (and having to change in and out of them quickly during the performances) and never getting any individual recognition onstage. Yet an opera wouldn't be possible without them. They are the story's society, reacting to the principals' woes and triumphs, not to mention rounding out the music for the entire show.

  At my first rehearsal, I was greeted by Mike Cammarata, a longtime member of the opera association's chorus. When I told him I was a reporter, he asked with a grin, "Oh, so you're undercover?" I told him I wasn't. "OK," he said, "I'm going to tell everyone you're undercover." Cammarata walked me through the social breakdown of the chorus, whose members have gotten to know each other well over the years, even introducing me to the self-dubbed "gay elite."

The cliche that opera stars are temperamental is a misconception — at least in the case of Chauvet, the celebrated French singer who flew in to play the role of Carmen. She worried that she pushed me too hard during our fight; she offered to practice my small part with me again and again; and she joined the other principals in supporting each other and making themselves approachable to the entire cast.

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  "There are so many singers you can speak with," she tells me. "A lot of times it's not because they are not nice but they are so concentrated, there is a lot of pressure and a lot of stress."

  Chauvet began studying voice when she was 17, and she says she realized she could be a professional singer when she was 22. Because most classic opera is sung in Italian, she learned the language. It takes years of studying and maturation of the voice to be an opera singer. Claire Shackleton, a New Orleans native and Loyola University grad-uate who sang the role of Mercedes, walked me through the lists of degrees, language classes and voice lessons you need to become one.

  Of course, to really excel at something requires more than just talent and education. It requires a strong love for a craft, whatever that may be, and so it was no surprise to hear Chauvet offstage, waiting in the wings, humming along to the parts that weren't even hers. She and the others have the entire opera memorized.

Backstage before the performance, people whisper, "Toi toi toi" — opera's version of "break a leg!"

  I'm waiting for my entrance — a moment so impeccably timed that it's written into the music itself — and I'm beginning to consider what will happen if I just don't go on. I'm scared. The audience is packed with people in really nice clothes who've paid a lot for the tickets, and I know, not in a self-deprecating way so much as a realistic one, that I am capable of messing up everything. It's like being in a meeting and suddenly realizing that you could start screaming profanities at the top of your lungs if you really wanted to. And you don't, but just the fact that that is one possibility among the thousands is frightening.

  Suddenly I'm walking onstage, limping really dramatically, and it's because I'm having fun, I realize, and I also realize that I am the action onstage, for this brief moment, and that I should embrace that, because it won't last long.

Carmen backstage
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Carmen backstage

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  I scream "Carmencita!", channeling every person who's ever made me mad. I get dunked, and the water flies everywhere, and then I get dragged offstage by the soldier, just like every rehearsal. But it's different this time, because people are watching. I watch the rest of the show from the wings, so close to everything that I can see the singers' ribcages flare out each time they take a breath before hitting the high notes.

  After the opera ends on opening night, I'm exhausted, caked in makeup that makes me look 10 years older, and sore from the weight of the huge skirt I've been wearing for hours. I haven't really even done much; I can't imagine how tired the main performers must be. But Cammarata mentioned the chorus' tradition of heading to Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop after opening night.

  At the bar, Cammarata yells, "Have some Carmencita!" He pulls out a bottle with an illustration of a dancing woman in a red dress and pours me a shot that tastes like a boozy cherry cough drop. He makes them for all the shows, a special concoction thematically derived from the title of each opera. After Mozart's The Magic Flute, it was The Magic Flask.

  With the day off ahead, followed by a Sunday performance, I feel like a part of something, which is really a fine enough reason to do anything, but I'm part of something that is at least a century in the making, with a fleet of people who consider this among the most incredible pastimes possible. I get the jokes; I'm a part of the cast; I can say, for the weekend, "I'm in Carmen."

  Even if I am just "exceeding what is necessary, required or desired" — and even if that is a little redundant.

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