Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda is a notoriously expensive opera to mount, calling not only for a large chorus and a troupe of dancers, but also a legion of supernumeraries to play the parts of priests and priestesses, ministers, captains, soldiers, officials, Ethiopians, Egyptians, slaves and prisoners. Some especially lavish productions also feature live animals (elephants!) on stage.
Tanya Frenette is a “super” in the current Vancouver Opera production of Aïda, and sends us a diary from behind the scenes. View the photo gallery above for images from the rehearsals.
Not long ago, my husband and I were at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto watching La Bohème by Puccini. It was lovely – the set and lighting were superb, the costumes were magnificent and I got lost in the exquisite music. During intermission I leaned over and confidently stated: “One day I am somehow going to be in an opera.”
In February I found myself reading a casting call from Vancouver Opera for supernumeraries (also known as extras, however more lovingly referred to as “supers”) for Verdi’s Aïda. I submitted my headshot and resume in an email and I admit that I did nothing short of beg for the opportunity. A few weeks later I was invited to join the cast in March and jumped straight into rehearsals.
Rehearsals began in a large space in Vancouver’s east end with director David Gately, assistant director Amiel Gladstone and stage manager Sheila Munn. We stayed there for a week as we were taught to manoeuvre around the stage with the help of coloured tape on the floor of the rehearsal space. The room was filled with props: spears, jewels, palms, urns, baskets, shields, fans, all draped in gold, everything Egyptian.
A duo of talented pianists played for us so we could move to the music. One of them was Kinza Tyrrell, the assistant chorus director, who also sang so we might find our steps among key words. The principal singers came the following week: Mlada Khudoley (Aïda), Daveda Karanas (Amneris), Arnold Rawls (Radames), Morris Robinson (Ramfis), Ilya Bannik (the King of Egypt). The chorus also joined, as did conductor Jonathan Darlington, chorus director/assistant conductor Leslie Dala, lighting designer Helen Kuukka and the dancers.
For an opera fan, the experience of sitting among some of the most amazing singers around is incredible. The voices of the principals enveloped me, music and voices echoing off the walls – beautiful, alluring, bewitching. I’ve watched Darlington, the conductor, close his eyes from time to time during a particularly moving piece and I can now truly relate – the intimacy of being so close to the mix is transcendent.
From here we moved to the stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in downtown Vancouver. Everyone is having the time of their lives, rushing from wigs and makeup to the dressing room, the various costumes hanging on their assigned racks, hearing the chorus warm up their voices in one part of the makeup room, and watching the ballerinas stretch and warm up in another.
Brenda, my makeup lady, laughs at me because I’m walking around with a ridiculous smile on my face all the time. Other supers include Clair, who has loved opera his entire life and goes to great lengths to see any production he can in North America; Lara from Germany, who loves everything to do with this experience and is always happy; and Lore, the Vancouver Opera Guild coordinator who, along with a team of volunteers, organizes meals for the cast. There’s also Bianca, who has been a supernumerary for 11 seasons and Megan, who has been part of the opera since she was a child chorus member. You don’t get rich being a supernumerary. You do it because you love it; because you get to be part of creating something incredible.
Opening night was April 21 and I am happily moving along, grateful because I know that this is the must-see production this month in Vancouver. It’s been wonderful watching it come together, and continuing with Tuesday night’s performance, I get to do it again five more times. When you come to see it, you’ll see me in there somewhere, mixed in with a group of talented people doing their best to bring you Verdi’s vision.
Have you ever been part of an opera production, either onstage or off? Let us know in the comments below, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Morris Robinson scores a touchdown for Vancouver Opera
Tenor Colin Ainsworth performs Sonetto XVI by Benjamin Britten
Strong cast delivers musically impressive Aida