April 02, 2024

Just super

by Mary Anthony

An extra who appeared in Lyric's 2011/12 production of Aida looks back on a truly grand experience.


The night of my Lyric debut had arrived. 

It was January 21, 2012, and I was going to perform onstage in the famous Triumphal Scene of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida — among the grandest of the grand operas. I, on the other hand, was among the lowest of the low, having been cast as a supernumerary. But as I walked through the stage door along with professional musicians, dancers, choristers, and world-class opera singers, I felt more like a superluminary!

The real luminaries, the stars the audience had come to see, included Chicago's own soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role; mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as Amneris; tenor Marcello Giordani as Radamès; baritone Gordon Hawkins as Amonasro; and bass Raymond Aceto as Ramfis. The Chorus Director then, as now, was Michael Black, early in his tenure with the company. In the pit was conductor Renato Palumbo, an expert in Italian opera who had conducted Macbeth in the 2010/11 season, and behind the scenes (with dozens of others) was stalwart Stage Manager Rachel Tobias, also still at Lyric today.

It takes a lot of folks to pull off a grand production on such a grand scale — and that's truly an understatement. Take, for instance, our fearless leader, Super Captain Bill Walters (still at Lyric): All he had to do was wrangle 98 adult supernumeraries and 7 child supers.

Supers huddle near the captive princess Aida (Sondra Radvanovsky) in Lyric's 2011/12 production of Aida.

Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, I had reported to the rehearsal room where I would be given my assignment for the run of the show. I had already visited the wardrobe and makeup departments to be fitted for my costume and wig. Now it was time to learn the requirements of my role, along with more than 100 other supers. There were gold throne bearers, soldiers painted black who carried pallets laden with plunder, red soldiers who carried standards, throngs of cheering Egyptian popoli (Italian for citizens), and Ethiopian prisoners of war (called "blue people" in this production, because of their paint job). I would be part of this sizable, albeit doomed lot.

At the first rehearsal, we prisoners were grouped into "family units" who were assigned to go onstage together. We lined up and, when given the command, we huddled close — clutching each other while feigning terror — and slowly moved to the middle of the room, to the accompaniment of a piano playing the music we would soon come to know by heart.

At the musical cue, Suo padre! ("Her father!"), we were to panic and drop to the ground, cowering as we awaited our fate. Another cue, Struggi, O Re! ("Destroy them, O King"), and we learned to grovel, looking in the direction where the enemy king's empty throne had been placed by the throne bearers. (Later in the rehearsal process the king would be seated on the throne, but for now we had to pretend he was there, ready to render judgment).

Pieta! we mouthed, pleading for mercy.

"Listen for the words from the King, 'AI tuo consiglio io cedo' ("I yield to your good counsel")," said director Matthew Lata, a veteran of dozens of productions. "Your lives have been spared."

Then, on hearing the chorus sing: Gloria al Egitto ("Glory to Egypt"), we were to rise up and rush to offer tribute to the icons of our gods, which had been claimed by the victors as spoils of war.

"All right, let's try it!" Lata urged.

Confusion ensued. It sounded simple, but when 98 supers are in one rehearsal room, the logistics can be overwhelming. We tried — rehearsed — over and over until rehearsal time ended. Then we were, quite literally, released — and, thank goodness, we received Cheat Sheets to study.

At the next rehearsal, even more people were packed into the room. Now we were joined by the masterful Lyric Opera chorus; the smattering of popoli from last time was now a throng, and a coterie of ominous-looking high priests had joined in, now directed to move into the very spot where we were cowering, as if to suggest they would stomp us out. Morte ai nemici ("Death to the enemy"), they sang.

Now, in addition to pleading for mercy, we had to shrink and yield the little patch of space we occupied. This did not feel like acting — these guys meant business!

At our next rehearsal, we were joined by the principal singers — the international stars whose voices could fill the most cavernous auditorium and move the most discerning audiences to tears. Now it was not just us the priests wanted dead; it was also our King Amonasro, the father of our Princess Aida, who had been captured (in disguise) along with us, and joined us as we huddled onstage. When he stood in our midst and sang of his pride in his country, we were to stand defiantly with him in patria filius.

Mary Anthony's "family group" included super Bonnie McGrath (right) who quickly went from a stranger to a lifelong friend. Here, the duo recreated their "blue period" at a supers annual party.

As rehearsals progressed, the piano was replaced by full orchestra, and the conductor — who I quickly figured out was the new sheriff in town — assumed the position of authority.

I also learned a new word, banda, which is a collective term for musicians hired to perform offstage. Playing from the darkened wings, these specialty musicians (such as harpists and trumpets) followed the direction of conductor Eric Weimer (now in his fourth decade on Lyric's music staff), who wielded a lighted baton.

As we prepared to be onstage, the makeup and wardrobe departments went into high gear, making sure everything fit properly and looked right. Among our jobs was to learn to move in costume to ensure there would be no mishaps. I was mostly successful, if you don't count the time another super and I managed to get our beaded wigs entangled, or when I stepped on my own robe and nearly started a bowling-pin-like chain reaction. Those who wore glasses could keep them on so long as they remembered to take them off for the actual performances. Watches and cell phones had to remain in the dressing room.

Getting into costume was a project! We donned blue tights, ballet slippers, and blue t-shirts before reporting to the Wigs & Makeup department where blue greasepaint was applied everywhere else, including our ears and the webs between our fingers. Only then did we get into costume and wait in line to have our facial features painted dark grey and our braided wigs (adults) or headwraps (children) applied.

And then it was opening night. I was prepared for the adrenaline rush that comes with it... but not for the presence of a live audience! As the Triumphal Scene ended on the final musical swell with us frozen in tableau, down on our knees, arms raised heavenward in gratitude, the audience burst into applause — and it was all I could do not to burst into tears. I was just an extra — a humble super — but the majesty of the music and the moment (and those Verdi trumpets!) combined to create a singular experience that is locked in my memory forever.

MARCH 9 - APRIL 7, 2024



Experience opera at its grandest with Verdi’s visually stunning and musically captivating Aida, featuring intimate arias, dramatic duets, and thrilling Verdi choruses. As a riveting love triangle unfolds in an alluring Egyptian setting, the story is brought to life by principal artists Michelle Bradley, Jamie Barton, and Russell Thomas, all led by Music Director Enrique Mazzola.

Photos: Mary Anthony, Dan Rest