The star of the show

June 01, 1995|By Frank Pierce Young

GLENN MCNATT'S "A Supernumerary Life" (April 29), about his brief career as a stage extra with the Baltimore Opera Company, prompted me to recall a tale of my own, one with a twist that has forever set me apart from others in that musical realm.

In 1946 I was a 16-year-old junior at Abington High School in Abington, Pa. One day, our music appreciation class was offered a half-dozen supernumerary roles -- small, non-singing parts -- that needed to be filled for a performance of the opera "Carmen" at the famed Academy of Music in nearby Philadelphia.

As it happened, I had been into opera for the past couple of years for several reasons.

First, a friend's father was an amateur horn player who determinedly played along with the Saturday radio broadcast concerts. He was perfectly content to sit for 20 minutes staring at sheet music for the opportunity to tootle along for two seconds.

Second, while attending weekend classes at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Arts (now called the Philadelphia Museum College of Art) I had stumbled across a bunch of dog-eared opera librettos of ancient vintage with English translations -- a gold mine for a language nerd like me.

The Academy of Music hall in Philadelphia had -- and still has -- some of the world's finest acoustics. As one of about 30 "supers" I was to be a soldier in one of two squads. We knew right off which squad was which, because my group got yellow uniform coats and spears, and the other got red coats and swords. We would represent the changing of the guard.

The sword-carriers were the relief outfit. All they had to do was march on, halt, and at the proper moment, poke their swords into the air and lower them.

We spear-carriers had a far more complex task. On stage already, we would stand at attention, our spears at our sides, end resting on the floor, point starkly up. At our leader's command, we had to raise our spears straight up; then, as the other squad's swords saluted us and came down, so did our spears.

And that was it, our part of the show.

Simple? Certainly not in the mind of our middle-age stage manager, who sternly tried to impress upon us the necessity of lowering those raised spears just so.

It had to do with the hall's fabled acoustics. Allowing the thick wooden ends of those 8-foot-long spears even slightly to tap the canvas-covered, hardwood floor would produce a horrible, drumlike noise audible in the highest balcony.

We therefore had to be exceedingly careful, after raising our spears, not to simply jerk downward, but lower them by allowing the spears to slide evenly through our hands, which would brake their fall a hairbreadth from the floor. Only then could we silently lower them the rest of way.

The stage manager spent considerable time instructing us on the subject. I could see that he was very, very serious. I resolved not to let him down.

We then trooped on stage and lined up to await the curtain. It rose. A moment later, from stage right, came the soldiers who were to relieve us. Their swords swept up, our spears were hoisted high. Their swords swept down. Our spears slid smoothly through our hands.

I was almighty worried about that drumlike floor, so I was careful about that slipping-through-the-hand business. None of that just-let-it-slide stuff for this soldier, no siree.

After what seemed like an eternity of slipping and braking, my spear silently struck the floor. As I stood there heaving a sigh of relief, I noticed an uncommonly attractive young woman member of the cast at the other end of the stage. But I only got a glimpse of her before my squad was marched off into the wing, from which we watched the rest of the opera.

Like all hams, I waited breathlessly for the next day's review. Max de Schauensee of the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin described our "Carmen" at some length, but saved the best for last.

About two paragraphs from the end, he commented on the "noble bearing" of the two squads of guards. He especially noted the ones in the yellow coats. He focused especially on the spear-lowering, which, during one of the big numbers, had fascinated the entire audience.

Like any self-respecting critic, he didn't complain without venturing a thought for improvement. He suggested that one of the soldiers "needed more basic training."

Even so, it was a mention, and in the end I got more lineage -- and a clearer performance description -- than the very pretty girl I'd noticed just before leaving the stage.

Only decades later did I learn who she was, and dimly realized that I had probably passed up a glorious stage career.

In less than 30 seconds, I had upstaged the entire New York Metropolitan Opera and earned a bigger review than Beverly Sills.

Frank Pierce Young writes from Annapolis.

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