Walking in the Light

This essay was first published in:

SKIVE MAGAZINE,  “Memoirs” issue, September 2012

 

I love opera. The music, the singing, the spectacle. It envelops me in its

beauty and grandiosity, lifting me out of the everydayness of existence and

onto a magic carpet of vocal and visual splendor to a cloud of sublime

sensitivity. See—it carries me away verbally too. I don’t sing or act or play

a musical instrument (my efforts at the piano might be considered “playing

at” but not “playing”), and I don’t have a keen musical ear. My piano hasn’t

been tuned in more than a decade but I can’t detect the sour notes that must

be there; I don’t hear key changes or theme variations in music, try as I

might; and, the San Diego Symphony sounds just as good to me as the New

York Philharmonic. But this doesn’t stop me from enjoying it all. There’s a

saying that “those who can’t do, teach.” Make that: those who can’t play,

listen. But think of it another way, too: as saying that even if you can’t

pursue your dream or rise to a pinnacle of perfection, you can still be part

of it; it can still be part of you.

My father was an opera lover and used to see live performances as a

teenager in New York. He never made it to the Metropolitan, but he was

happy with less lofty venues, outdoor presentations in Central Park. My

parents married young, at 20 and 21, and between their bare-bones

existence and my mother’s disdain for classical music, dad had to make do

with scratchy LPs and Met radio broadcasts at low volume. He was my

champion when I played the piano with such promise as a child; it broke

his heart when I abandoned it in my teenage rebellion, replacing Beethoven

with Elvis, the “Moonlight Sonata” with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

But the seeds planted early took root and bore fruit. Rock-’n’-roll turned

out to be a short-lived phase; years of Chopin etudes ultimately carried the

day. As an adult I attended symphony and chamber music performances,

piano and vocal recitals. I went to a dinner-theatre performance of “Il

Trovatore,” a condensed production on a small stage with just a few soloists

and musicians, but the experience was kindling that sparked long-cold

ashes. A co-worker at the time sang in the San Diego Opera chorus and

would give me tickets to productions she was in. Her sportswriter husband

went with me just once; I had to elbow him awake when Grace appeared

on stage. But it captivated me, and I wanted more. I started buying tickets

for the occasional opera, graduating to season tickets these past fifteen

years.

When I retired from full-time work, my wish list didn’t include

extensive travel or expensive hobbies. When I worked I had money but

little time; now the situation was reversed. I planned to do volunteer work,

and San Diego Opera was a good candidate. I was fascinated with the idea

of doing something behind the scenes and helping in what were hard times

for arts organizations, and I knew that the company used supernumeraries,

recruited from the general public. “Supers” populate crowd scenes—carry

spears, wait on royalty—the ones called “extras” in movies. I submitted my

application and was invited to the next selection process. It’s more of a

cattle call than a talent contest or audition; being chosen is pretty much the

luck of the draw. Candidates line up while the director and wardrobe

manager pace back and forth, scrutinizing, looking for specific types to fit

the director’s vision and sizes to fit existing costumes. I hit the jackpot on

my first outing; I was selected to be a nun in the Easter processional in

“Cavalleria Rusticana.” My on-stage presence was to last about sixty

seconds: one of a multitude of worshippers, I would march in at stage right,

proceed to center front, turn back up the middle, then climb a stairway to

the chapel entrance which led backstage. That was it. But the whole

experience was a thrill, from costume fittings to staging and rehearsals with

the principals and chorus, seeing a work of art come to life. And, finally, to

be under the lights in front of audiences of 2,000 for four performances,

my husband and daughter among them on opening night. From their seats

in the upper balcony, I was indistinguishable from my nine saintly sisters,

all covered head to toe by habit and wimple, every hair tucked in. I had to

tell my entourage where to look: third pair from the front, on the right,

carrying a cross.

I’ve attended every “super call” since but haven’t gotten the nod again.

Beginner’s luck, I guess, and unfavorable odds. Unlike the scores of warrior

and soldier roles for men, there are few calls for female supers, and those

often specify young women to be ladies’ maids and pages. But I’ll keep

trying until they cast an all-ages crowd scene. Or need an experienced nun.

• • •

Because few will be chosen, prospective supers are asked to consider doing

light walking. Scrambling up and down ladders, climbing around on the

rafters, balancing on catwalks? Not for me. Then I learned that light

walkers stand, sit, squat, lean, perch, kneel, lie down, and move around on

stage so that the lighting can be fine-tuned without taking the performers’

costly time. Working behind the scenes with the production team and stage

crew, being on the sets? Sign me up!

And so it began, and so it continues. La Boheme, La Traviata, Rigoletto,

Turandot, Nabucco, Der Rosencavelier, Don Quixote, Don Pasquale. Over

the past three seasons I’ve seen the moving parts, the sets and furnishings

and props, the flaws and flourishes. In spite of its name, light walking is

often more stationary than mobile. I might stand in one place for what

seems like an eternity, staring into the dark house while lights beam and

shift on my face from different directions; this must be what police

interrogation feels like. The production and lighting directors sit in the

house about twelve rows back and issue instructions to the stage manager,

who calls them out: “Move five paces to stage right.” “Sit on the blue chair

next to the umbrella stand.” “Walk to the top of the stairs . . . stop for a

minute . . . now back down again.” There’s a lot of waiting too, sitting

backstage or out in the house during scene changes or while the crew moves

through its paces. Everything is orchestrated during and between acts and

scenes, with split-second timing like a NASA rocket launch. Nothing is too

minor to escape scrutiny, down to the placement of each wine glass, potted

plant or powder puff, and paint touchups that would be invisible to even

the most critical binoculared eye. I’m a volunteer, cherished and

appreciated, but if they asked, I would pay for this privileged inside

perspective.

January 2010. I walk on stage and am assaulted by red, intense Chinese

red—drapes, screens and scrims, a backdrop with crimson slashes in an

Asian motif. A blue bridge, sloping steps and curved red banister, at center

stage. This hit-you-over-the-head visual splendor is David Hockney’s set for

Puccini’s “Turandot,” the third act where Calaf sings “Nessum Dorma” and

has his fateful denouement with the icy princess. The set was commissioned

in 1992 by the Chicago and San Francisco Opera companies and travels

under contract from company to company. Several years ago I was at an

opening night performance when Hockney came on stage and took a bow

with costume designer Ian Falconer, who created Turandot’s regal gowns

and the long red robes worn by the ministers Ping, Pang and Pong that now

hang in the hallway.

The stage crew is hard at work, carpenters, electricians, painters, prop

runners. They’re not ready for us, so I’m sent to sit in the house. It’s a

madhouse backstage but mornings are quiet in the adjacent hallways,

unlike the afternoons when everyone’s scurrying around and the principals

might be in their dressing rooms, warming up their voices. I sit in the

center of the second row in front of the orchestra pit, a view I don’t get from

my balcony seat. I watch as a crew member is hoisted to the ceiling in a

small hydraulic basket to make some adjustments; this is what I had once

imagined light walkers doing. The other light walkers today are Michele

and Shia, both supers in the production as well, part of a crowd scene. I’m

envious, but they’re petite Asian women—clearly what was called for—

while I’m neither. On stage I’m asked to stand next to the blue bridge. I

shift from foot to foot, imagining myself in violet robes and an elaborate

black wig. Then I’m in motion: “Alice, cross up and over the bridge . . . go

to the back . . . a little to the left . . . now walk down, slowly . . .”

 

February 2011. I’m in a ballroom for Act III of “Der Rosencavelier.” The

faux marble flooring looks authentic from the house with veined black and

gray squares, diamonds and rectangles. I’m told that the set is an exact

reproduction of the one used in the 1911 world premiere in Dresden.

Ornate furnishings carry out the rose-dominated scheme with lots of froufrou,

gold-leaf cherubs, garlands, and an enormous chandelier that looks

like Cinderella’s coach.

My sidekick, Sharon, and I are shifted around various chairs, back and

forth between doors and windows. The stage manager asks us to stand close

together: “Clasp hands and look like you’re in love.” We face each with

mock moony faces. Set change: the chandelier is lowered, marble flooring

rolled up. The crew moves walls out and in, buffs floors, adjusts platforms.

Like the players onstage, their movements are smoothly choreographed. It’s

an orderly transformation in what appears to be a climate of respect and

chumminess.

They unroll a simulated carpet with a rose design. A dozen men and

women line up and walk its length, stomping it into place with steel-toed

work boots while others at the ends and sides tack it down. Elevated

“rooms”—a festooned and canopied bed in one, the other a dressing room

with shirred and tasseled bronze and gold draperies—glide in on rubber

wheels for the first act boudoir scene. The towering walls are in segments

that are rolled into place, then attached to each other; they teeter and sway

until loud clicks indicate they’re snapped securely together. Back on stage

I’m told to recline on the bed, feet up on the rust-colored satin-quilted

spread, fluffy pillows behind my head. One of the cushions keeps flopping

down. They can’t let this happen during the performance, so a trio of fixers

and fluffers decide to attach them to the headboard with Velcro. “But she

likes to move them around,” someone says, referring to the soprano; “Who’s

going to tell her that she can’t?” “You talk to her.” “No, you.” Divas’ fragile

egos require careful handling, like crystal vases. I’m moved around a

grouping of chairs; their colors shift as the lighting changes, from rose tones

to hues of peach daiquiri and blood orange cosmopolitan. Next I’m told to

lounge on a settee and, as the Marschallin, “Ponder your youth.”

From the stage I peer up, way up, to the balcony. I pinpoint my section

by the red Exit signs and the yellow dots of the aisle lights, like an airport

runway at night. It’s amazing that we can see anything on stage from the socalled

“nosebleed level,” even with binoculars, but the sound is rich and full;

we’re happy to be there. Opera tickets have been my big splurge, and these

Saturday nights—one a month from January through May—are cherished

events. Light walking has added a new perspective and heightened my

enjoyment. I’m more attuned to details, appreciative of the effort behind

the spectacle. And I can proudly point out to my husband and friends, “I

was there—on that chair, the bridge, yes, the bed too …” Since I stopped

working, tickets are even more of an indulgence, hard to justify during lean

times, and this year we give them up. It’s a painful loss, and light walking

becomes more precious than ever. It’s my lifeline.

 

March 2012. California gold-rush days, the Wild West, not what you

would expect for Donizetti’s Italian classic “Don Pasquale.” When I saw this

“shoot-’em-up” production ten years ago, the recasting of time and place

didn’t resonate for me, with its comic bawdiness, but now I enjoy the upclose

encounter with the stuffed bobcat, bear-skin rugs and other props that

create its mood and milieu. The first afternoon of light walking is a long

and fast-moving session—none of the usual “hurry up and wait”—and six

of us work through all four scene changes. I sit at a game table playing

checkers, lean against a bar in the saloon, and stand poised next to an array

of fake cactus in a garden.

In a bordello scene Don Pasquale sits in a claw-footed bathtub filled

with bubbles, surrounded by buxom beauties. The assistant stage manager

approaches me backstage and says, “You’re tall and have long legs; would

you be willing to get in the tub with your legs splayed out on either side?”

I say sure without hesitation—damn the discomfort, wait till I tell friends

about this one—as she reassures me, “There’s an elevated foam cushion to

sit on and a back rest.” When I’m called on stage, I approach the tub

gamely, ready to climb over the edge and lower myself in, until I look down

into four inches of murky, mustard yellow liquid, a chemical stench rising

out of it. Whoa, wait a sec! I think. I point into the tub and look out into

the void, my shrug a question mark. A voice says, “Oh, is there water in it?

Just sit on the edge, then.”

“The Barber of Seville” is the season finale. Light walking is its own

reward, but I know that volunteers usually are offered tickets to the dress

rehearsal of the final production. I’ve given them away in the past, but now

they’re frosting on the cake. I’m opera-starved, and Rossini’s comic

masterpieces are a brilliant pairing of buffoonery and breathtakingly

gorgeous music. Like an exquisite dessert: rich dark-chocolate lava torte

filled with oozing loveliness. I’m eager to hear the baritone chuckling

through the “Largo al factotum”: “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro …”

Next year’s lineup includes “Aida.” Grand opera at its grandest, a

sumptuous extravaganza with a huge cast. Hmm, do you think? Can you

see me as an Ethiopian slave? No, I can’t either. But I can still look forward

to walking in the light, posing against a pillar in the palace, sitting on the

banks of the Nile, or praying in the temple. Even to the accompaniment of

the stage manager’s instructions instead of the notes of the stirring march

or the soulful arias, I’ll have the thrill of being part of it all.

 

 

One Response to “Walking in the Light”


  1. […] “Walking in the Light” is about my love affair with opera. It was published in an Australian journal, Skive, in a special memoir issue in September 2012. […]

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