“What do you mean when we spin Nixon on the banquet table?” My head cocked to one side the way my dog Earl’s does when I ask him to do something new.
For at least seven rehearsal meetings my “Supers” table partner and I had been practicing the choreographed banquet scene for Nixon in China. The table is at least five feet in diameter.
We had four table moves and I had them down. My body knew when John Adams’s gorgeous music was about to build up for each spin. I also knew the cue according to the lines of the libretto. We had to drop off our centerpieces and then get back to our table on the second verse of, “I opposed China”. I would tell myself, “Okay Tess, here it comes.” Our actual “solo” spin is to the words, “I was wrong!” Spin!
Mind you, we’re not just spinning this huge banquet table in place, we’re pushing it from one corner of the stage to the other; we’re criss-crossing with other smaller tables, who have their own destinations; we’re maneuvering around chorus members and principals, all in the hope that we won’t crash into each other or take out one of our baritones, tenor, sopranos and mezzos; because, that would be bad. The scene is a type of organized genius-chaos, a bigger more electric, sophisticated version of that old nursery game, duck-duck-goose. But even as a rookie, after a few rehearsals, I felt, “I got this.” I wasn’t running people over. I can do this supernumerary thing!
Let me back up a little here and introduce myself. I am a novelist completing my third book, which has the opera world as a back drop; okay, maybe more than that, but that’s all I’m saying for now. In hopes of solidifying my research, I took four Opera Overture classes put on by San Francisco Opera’s Education department, which I loved. In class they handed out applications to be a “supernumerary,” a non-speaking, non-singing role in an opera. [Right: Tess and fellow Super Veronique strike an authoritarian pose. Photo by Michael Harvey. ]
I turned in the application and got the role of Communist Soldier, turned quick-change Waiter, turned quick-change Communist Soldier and found myself a few days later getting ready to spin a giant table. Which brings us back to “What do you mean when we spin Nixon on the banquet table?”
“Nixon gets on the table,” our assistant stage director, Roy Rallo explained.
“While we’re spinning it?” I asked.
“Oh, okay,” I said, plastering on a ventriloquist-doll smile. Meanwhile, my head felt like a hot air balloon being pumped full of white noise. I should have known. With great power comes great responsibility, isn’t that the saying?
Sure enough, Nixon, the baritone, Brian Mulligan with the brilliant booming voice appeared the next day. “Hi guys,” he said. My first thought was, “Okay, spin the table VERY slowly. My second thought was, DON’T DROP NIXON.” It has become my mantra. Tonight is opening night, and I WILL NOT DROP NIXON. [Left: Nixon (Brian Mulligan) and the cast dance during the banquet scene. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
But all semi-joking aside. I had been researching Verdi and Puccini and Gounod and Bellini, I had never heard of Nixon in China or John Adams, but from the moment the lovely music started to role from the pianist’s fingers and the awesome chorus opened their mouths, I began to fall in love with Adams’s opera.
Around day eight our rehearsal schedule had names down: Mulligan, Kanyova, Carfizzi, O’Neill, Yuan, Lee, Costa-Jackson, Baggott, Birkland. “Oh, the principals are coming,” the other supers said. “Oh wonderful,” I thought. “Here come the stars!”
In the daily excitement of trying to learn the choreography and my cues, I was already in heaven hearing our compelling, precise and funny director, Michael Cavanaugh, share his thoughts with the chorus. I was mesmerized by the moody music coming from the grand piano that sounded at times like snow falling and at others, an all-out storm. There were so many ‘moments’ to just soak in and sigh over. I already had my personal favorites. The opening with the music building and the chorus singing, The people are…the heroes now… and later, when Brian Mulligan sings, Let us join hands…
It has been a joy to work with my fellow Supers: Mike Harvey, Mike S., Carlos, Charlie, Dave, John, Mimi, Kim and the newbies like me: Helen, Veronique, Lillian and Ruby. Everyone has been so encouraging and helpful. Some have been in as many as 70 productions! Each day we progressed and memorable bonds were formed as we watched, sighed and laughed over our parts and cues. Yes, laughed. After each banquet clearing scene, the sound of amused yet exasperated, “Someone took my plate!” was a familiar and strangely comforting sound. Comforting because it meant we were on our toes and bent on getting it right. Not to mention the terrific stage crew: Stage Manager Darin Burnett, Lee, Danielle and Lisa Maria have become our islands of calm. “Supers, ready…Go.” [Right: The team of supernumeraries for Nixon in China. Photo by Michael Harvey.]
The icing on the cake was during our final dress rehearsal when as we were standing in the hallway, looking like communist soldiers, a familiar looking man walked by, grinning and saluting us. Everyone who knew him was in awe. Gamer that I am, I returned the equally big grin and saluted him with a flourish. He laughed and kept walking.
“That was John Adams!” someone said. “I thought he might be here opening night. This is a treat!” Indeed, it has been and more. Thank you San Francisco Opera.
Tess Uriza Holthe is the bestselling author of WHEN THE ELEPHANTS DANCE and THE FIVE-FORTY-FIVE TO CANNES). www.tessurizaholthe.com