TWO WEEKS before the New York Metropolitan Opera Company began its run in Washington, the cattle call went out via newspaper and radio announcements that the Met would need "spear bearers" (aka "supers," short for supernumeraries, but more familiarly referred to as walk-ons) for its engagement at the Kennedy Center.
Nearly 300 D.C. metropolitan area residents showed up at the Opera House stage door at the designated time. Unfortunately, the Met needed only 30 supers -- all males -- for their shows.
"I want you all to know that this is pretty much arbitrary," said Bob Bradfield, assistant to the general managers of the Kennedy Center theaters. He went about selecting some tall people, some short, some fat, some thin, some with beards, some without.
I'm sorry, but for the rest of you, we'll keep you in mind for upcoming productions, and thank you all for coming."
Those of us selected were assigned to particular performances, told we would be treated like professionals (and paid $7 per performance), and asked to wear black shoes on the nights we would be appearing on stage.
"What about rehearsals?"
"There aren't any."
Paul Kimball spent 20 years as an officer aboard submarines, and now refers to himself as a beltway bandit. "I've been wanting to do this ever since college when my mother sent me a clipping about a guy who snuck on stage with the Met carring a spear he brought from home," Kimball said.
Charlie Kern owns his own heating and air-conditioning business. "Heck, I've been an opera fan all my life. I'm tickled pink to be here."
"I just love the sound of applause," Gary Genius, who works for the Treasury Department, said.
Among the rest of the group were trade association workers, a linguist, retired government employes, a free-lance cameraman, unemployed persons, and at least one writer who wanted to one day be able to tell his grandchildren that he had appeared on stage with the New York Met. Some were fanatical opera buffs. Others couldn't tell the difference between Verdi and Wagner, a mezzo-soprano from a contralto.
Then there was Alan Berg, a nutrition specialist for the World Bank:
"You were moved by his performance in 'La Boherne' . . . cheered him in 'Lucrezia Borgia' . . . loved him in 'Mefistofele' . . . and were touched by him in 'Die Tote Stadt,'" read the handbill. "And now, proudly announcing the Metropolitan Opera debut of ALAN BERG, 'The Pavarotti of the castrati,'" and followed by a schedule of shows and performance dates. It ended, "Claques Welcomed."
"I mailed it out to all my friends and relatives," said Berg.
In the supers' dressing room, Franco, the Met's costume manager, hands out fedora hats and baggy pants for the Depression-era costumes of "Mahagonny."
"But Franco, these pants are much too big."
"Ah, we use a pin, and she will be beautiful."
Makeup is applied to 20 super faces in a matter of minutes. Then it's down to the stage area for a brief description of the scene and set, a quick one-time walk-through, and that's it for rehearsal.
"And good luck fellows," says a good-natured assistant director.
We stand in the wings as Ragnar Ulfung, Cornell MacNeil and Lili Chookasian decide to found the town of Mahagonny. Around us, principals get last-minute costume adjustments. Prompters give directions from the wings to those already on stage. We are the discontented of the world heading for Mahagonny, the city where a man can do whatever he pleases.
Our walk across stage takes all of 10 or 15 seconds, and our first appearance on stage with the New York Met is over.
Cornell MacNeil and James Levine are walking off stage congratulating each other on how well the night's performance has gone.
"I saw you two years ago at Wolf Trap, Mr. MacNeil," interrupts a super, Harold Dunn, who has been standing in the wings.
"You were playing Iago . . . Jon Vickers played Otello. It was a magical evening, simply magical."
"Wasn't it though," chimes in Levine.
"Yes, and you conducted it, Mr. Levine," continues the elated super. "I remember clapping so hard my watchband broke. It was truly marvelous."
"Why, thank you," they seem to say simultaneously, never breaking step, and continuing to the dressing rooms.
"I didn't think they'd be that friendly," says Dunn.
It's act III, scene II of "Samson et Dalila," in the temple of Dagon. Supers, dressed as Philistine soldiers, spears et al, are at the tail end of a procession that puts nearly the entire cast on stage for the grand finale. They are to stand watch during the bacchanale and witness Samson being ridiculed by Dalila and the high priest before he topples the columns of the temple.
The procession either starts late or moves too slowly, but from the floor of the stage, where dancers lie in wait to start their choreographed orgy, the supers can hear in loud, almost frantic whispers, "Hurry, soldiers, hurry!" Just as the last soldier scrambles for his place on stage the dancers bound to their feet in dance.
"Relax and smile boys," says an understanding choral member, "this is supposed to be an orgy."
From the vintage point of the stage, the scene is a whirlwind of operatic artistry. The dance, the music, the voices, the costumes, the set, the staging, the lights: From this perspective, you can feel the perspiration, see the concentration, hear the notes pounding against your ears.
If it was nerves you were feeling when you first stepped out on stage, by now you realize it's all been transformed into pure excitement, and it will last long after the pillars are toppled and the curtain comes down.
Outside the Opera House stage door small clusters of people are waiting.
"Can I have your autograph?"