Cast of Characters Supernumeraries: As soldiers, executioners or temple priests, regular folks give a little bit extra to the Baltimore Opera Company's productions.

April 25, 1996|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN STAFF

By day, Norm Brubeck is a quiet family man who runs a consulting business from his Baltimore home. By night, he becomes a heartless torturer and a cynical archbishop -- roles that suit his towering physique and which he plays with relish onstage in the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Puccini's "Tosca."

"Usually, I'm the executioner or the cop or the guy who stands in for Mr. Big," says Mr. Brubeck, 66, who reckons he has appeared in more than two dozen operas since about 1980. "There's TC certain stereotyping going on, which is quite proper because that's the way they cast these roles. If they want a fruit seller, they don't get a guy who's 6-foot-3."

In the movies, they call people like Mr. Brubeck extras. In opera, they are called supernumeraries -- performers who fill small but crucial, non-singing roles that lend color and authenticity to a scene.

"We've had supers play everything -- bishops, archbishops, prostitutes, drug smugglers," says Baltimore Opera Company wardrobe manager Bob Gist, who has helped recruit supers for the past 10 years. "But usually they are lackeys, guards, soldiers or temple priests."

The opera's current production includes 15 supernumeraries, all unpaid volunteers who give up three weeks of evenings to attend rehearsals and performances in exchange for a few fleeting moments onstage decked out in colorful costumes, surrounded by spectacular scenery and bathed in the sonorities of some of the most beautiful music ever written.

"They are very interesting people," says Mr. Gist. "They are basically people who like the collaborative experience of being in an opera and knowing they are helping make it possible. Because we could never afford to put productions on if we had to pay them all."

Take, for example, the soldiers who form the firing squad that executes Tosca's lover in the opera's final act. They reflect a cross section of the supers' ranks, counting among them a real-life waiter, a pharmacist, an engineer, a biomedical researcher, a school registrar, a real-estate agent and a couple of aspiring young singers.

One of those soldiers, Dien Pham, is a 25-year-old molecular biologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. He says he fell into supering when a housemate who volunteers as a makeup artist for the company told him about it.

"So I went down when they were doing [Bizet's] 'Pearl Fishers' and met Bob Gist, who asked if I wanted to super," recalls Mr. Pham. "Then they took my measurements and called me for 'Tosca.' So this is my first one."

Mr. Pham says he recently became interested in classical music, and knows little about opera. What fascinates him is seeing how a production gets staged.

"Opera is this continuous thing, but there are so many factors and so many people that make it come to life. If I weren't backstage, I wouldn't be able to see the effort by all these people -- set builders, lighting, makeup, the orchestra and the singers. It seems so chaotic backstage compared to the precision of the performance."

Opera's nuts and bolts

The nuts and bolts of the production process also appeal to John Hass, a retired industrial engineer who worked for 30 years at the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point. Like Mr. Pham, he became involved with the opera by accident.

"We'd always been interested in cultural kinds of things," he says. "I listened to opera before I started going to see the Baltimore company. Then my wife and I got a season subscription, and we sat out in the audience and watched it. Then, lo and behold, I must have filled out one of those 'get involved' type forms as we were leaving one evening, and all of a sudden, I got a call."

Within a year, he was a super. "I wound up in 'Macbeth' in March 1994," Mr. Hass recalls. "I was scared to death I was going to get out there on stage and miss something, but it worked out.

"I was very uneasy about it. I had quite an adjustment to make because I had been used to running these major repairs [at Bethlehem Steel] where everybody came running to me for direction. And here I was like a potted flower, and the director has to tell me to move two steps to the right. I was not Mr. Fix-it anymore."

"I'm always amazed at how they react to being bossed around," says Mr. Gist, who recruited Mr. Hass.

"Finding supers is harder than you might think," he says. "First because many people are reluctant to commit the time it takes from their lives. Very often the people we would want, like college students, music and drama students, are engaged in other things. So we've had people who have never heard an opera before come on stage and become opera lovers.

"We had one super for Donizetti's 'Elisir d'Amore' who was a Peabody music major and actually played the trumpet from the stage," he says. "We've had supers who juggle and dance. Mostly, we work on types. We also ask whether they have any unusual skills, like fire-eating."

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