With visions of Caruso and Melba dancing in their heads, a small group of Harvard and Radcliffe students arrived at the Opera House one Sunday at noon to rehearse their parts as "supers" in the New York City Opera's Carmen. After bumbling past small groups of half-dressed ballet dancers, they came to the stage, where Mr. Williams, a nervous, dramatic little man, was sipping a scalding cup of coffee and puffing a cigarette. He needed a shave.
"Some of the costumes were sent on to New York by mistake," he said, "so we just cawn't use all of you. I'm ever so sorry." He gestured to a boy standing near him. "You look Spanish," he said. "You can be one of the sword-bearers." He hesitated a moment. "Oh God no, not with that horrid crew-cut. You'd stand out like a sore thumb."
A girl from the back, a professional with the company, told him she wanted to change her dress. "Don't change now," he pleaded hoarsely. "Lee would positively have a fit." After motioning a tall boy into place as head of a column of soldiers, he surveyed the group for a second. "Nonononono," he said, "Don Jose is short and fat. We can't have the soldiers taller than he. Change your positions."
When he got everyone cast properly, be looked over the lot of them and shuddered, almost imperceptibly. Mr. Williams was an artist.
"I must have your complete attention for the next three hours," he said. "The opera begins at 3:00 and the whole company has to catch a train at 7:00." He said the last sentence very dramatically, observing the supers' reactions. They were suitably impressed, so he went on. The girl in the back walked off-stage to change her clothes while Mr. Williams wasn't looking.
"During the third act, when you will be huddled together sleeping, you must be especially quiet. The acoustics of this ball are too good to have the singing accompanied by you. If you must say 'Get off my foot!' say it in French." He noticed that the girl in the back was missing. "Is Shirley gone?" he asked. A super told him she was. "Pity," he said in six syllables.
After explaining the supers' positions during the Toreador Song, "that--uh--classic aria," he led them to the dressing room on the fourth floor. Long rows of light bulbs were reflected from the broken mirrors of a communal dressing table. It was all very romantic. The gypsy costumes were filthy and smelled bad, which everyone agreed was an authentic touch. One super reached for a pencil to paint on a moustache. "Touch that make-up kit and I'll break yer arm," said a muscular ballet dancer.
When the supers arrived backstage, it was one vast, dim-lit confusion. Stage hands frantically moved sets in every direction. A huge flat nearly smashed through the curtain. Soldiers, gypsics, street urchins, and buxom factory girls scurried aimlessly around the stage.
"I don't care what the rules are," said one of the supers to another. "When the chorus sings, I'm going to sing too."
One of the girls motioned to Carmen that her bodice was too low. Carmen began to raise it, then muttered "What the hell!" and lowered it another fraction of an inch. "The balcony is going to have a better view than we are," said a girl to one of the male gypsies. "We'll be closer to the music, though," he replied.
The overture began, the confusion more or less dissipated, and up went the curtain. At one point a children's chorus started to go off the wrong side of the stage, but the ubiquitous Mr. Williams intervened.
When the opera ended, the supers went upstairs to undress. "Don't try to swipe any swords or helmets," the costume manager warned. "You'll all be searched as you go out the door."
Some of the supers couldn't get their makeup off and had to walk past the stage door crowds still looking vaguely like gypsies. People stared at them and whispered, so they acted very professional.
A reporter from the Wellesley News was interviewing Don Jose. She was very excited, she said, to be able to talk to a real live opera star.