n Saturday, June 26, some 30 assorted people ranging from a 31-year-old computer programmer at the Department of Agriculture to an 8-year-old third-grader from Annapolis gathered in the Eisenhower Theater's second-floor rehearsal room at the Kennedy Center to begin work on the Washington Opera's current production of "Manon."

They weren't singers or, in some cases, even particularly opera fans. But they were helping midwife a passion, and in doing so would inevitably share that passion too. They were the supernumeraries of the "Manon" cast, those voiceless spear carriers of operatic legend who flesh out the crowd scenes, play aristocrat and peasant, and sometimes get to carry the queen's train.

For a galaxy of very personal reasons -- and a token fee of $10 a performance -- they had chosen to surrender three to six hours a day for most of the next month practicing for a few minutes on stage in the musical shadow of some extraordinary voices in an opera most of them had never even heard.

"I suppose there are as many motives for this as people who do it," said Jennifer Johnston, 51, a magazine writer making her 12th start as an operatic "super." "But I think the ultimate reason -- and it's a very private one -- may be how it makes this incredible music truly part of you... . You're around it so much you discover all sorts of new dimensions to it, sometimes very moving ones. And for the rest of your life whenever you hear it you'll say to yourself, 'There! That was where I made my entrance!' And you'll smile at the memory."

Johnston, who has acted and directed in amateur theaters, may be the closest to a professional in "Manon's" supernumerary ranks. Donald Carey, 64, an Environmental Protection Agency engineer who plays the paunchy stagecoach driver in "Manon's" first act and likes "some but not all" operas, began supering seven productions ago when his wife bought him a chance to do so at a Washington Opera fund-raising auction. Craig Meyers, 26, who works for a defense consulting firm in Reston and has never even seen an entire opera, answered a casting call as a lark and now finds himself carrying the star soprano's sedan chair.

Others look upon "supering" as a regular part of their life. Patricia DiZebba, 33, an emergency room nurse at Sibley Hospital who plays a ballet dancer in "Manon's" second act, tries "to find time to do one of these a year." Why? "Are you kidding? I'm Italian!" Few friends her age understand her passion for opera, she says, "and I can't sing, so this is as close as I can get." Anastasia Shaw, 47, who plays one of "Manon's" elegant ladies in waiting, has supered in 21 productions since 1982 and has photos and souvenirs from each one. She tries to do five operas a year, she says, and does volunteer work for the Washington Opera when she's not onstage. "I saw 'Aida' when I was 10," she says by way of explanation. "After that I was never the same."

Carol Pearson, who rides herd on the disparate super ranks for the opera company, says, "You wouldn't believe the assortment of people we have doing this. We had one little man who looked normal enough. He turned out to be a nuclear physicist. One day I asked, 'What do you do out there in Bethesda?' He said, 'Targeting evaluation.' I said, 'What's that?' He said, 'You know, like, if we drop the big bomb here, how many die from radiation.' And I said, 'My God, what if he has a bad day at the office!' "

For some of us making our operatic debuts in "Manon" there are two reasons for supering. One is a chance to watch the evolution of a major operatic production from the ground up. The other is Nelly Miricioiu. Few people who saw and heard the Romanian soprano two years ago in what Washington Post music critic Joe McLellan called her "incandescent" performance in "La Traviata" here will ever forget it. So supreme was her triumph that Washington Opera director Martin Feinstein offered her any company's ultimate accolade -- the chance to name the opera she'd like staged for her return. She chose "Manon," a big, splashy, intensely lyrical work by the French composer Jules Massenet.

"It's much the same story as 'Traviata,' " Miricioiu would say later. "But it's not in everybody's repertoire. And the music is truly breathtaking."

Miricioiu had never sung "Manon," nor had most of the performers ultimately cast in the show, nor had it ever been staged by the Washington Opera. Conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg had never conducted it. Director Roman Terleckyj had never directed it.

Thus, what was beginning in the Eisenhower Theater's rehearsal room a month ago was a process of discovery even more pronounced than usual with a new production. And it was no small process. With a $1.03 million budget, six separate stage sets, 244 costumes and a cast of nearly 100, "Manon" would rank as one of the more opulent productions in Washington Opera history.

A Passionate Woman Though far from obscure, Massenet's "Manon" has languished for much of this century, at least in the United States, in the shadow of Puccini's more frequently performed "Manon Lescaut," with which the Italian composer achieved his first real success. This hardly seems fair, since Massenet's heroine is far more complex and fully realized both musically and dramatically.

Both operas are based on an 18th-century French novel by the Abbe Prevost, who purported to be cautioning the public by penning "a terrible example of the force of passion." His Manon, and Massenet's, is a beautiful, ebullient and willful young woman intoxicated by the discovery of her irresistible power over men and the rich life it makes possible. Though she deeply loves the young aristocrat Des Grieux, who adores her, she also betrays and exploits him almost casually in the process, comprehending only at her death what her passion and thoughtlessness have cost. She is at various times a selfish opportunist, a liar and cheat, a calculating seductress and, not infrequently, an insatiable, pleasure-hungry child.

But, my God, is she alive!

"She is very much a woman," says Miricioiu, with appreciative post-feminist sensibility. "Very complex... . There is a good bit of Manon in all of us, but hopefully, not too much."

For those of us beginning our acquaintance with Manon as supers last month, little of that vitality was immediately evident. The Eisenhower Theater rehearsal room, maybe half the size of a basketball court, wore across its wooden floor an angled maze of lines in colored tape like a Mondrian painting, outlining various stage sets past and future. A round, hand-cranked sharpening stone and scythe, what looked to be a moss-covered horse trough, a table, benches and the blue tapes served as the balcony and courtyard of the inn at Amiens where Manon makes her first appearance.

We supers have been given oversize name tags to aid Terleckyj and his assistants in directing us. Penciled on each tag is our role in each act, many of them paralleling the rise and fall of Manon. The tag of Patricia Wyckoff, who pens murder mysteries in her non-supernumerary hours, reads "1. -- Servant. 2. -- Elegant. 3. -- Tramp." Mine reads "1. -- Waiter. 2. -- Elegant. 3. -- Lackey."

For the busy first act, when we throng the inn courtyard in our various roles, Terleckyj not only blocks out our various moves, but gives each of our anonymous, wordless roles a bit of character we're encouraged to develop on our own. One maid is told she has a crush on a stableboy, another urged to drop some spoons on her way across the stage. I'm told I will bear one of the choice dishes of an offstage meal through the courtyard.

"You're proud of it, but you're also hungry for it," he tells me. "Sniff it a little, maybe. Don't let the urchins in the courtyard grab any."

While rehearsal pianist Randy Kaplan plays Massenet's music and assistant stage manager Paul-Douglas Michnewich notes our entrances on his score, Terleckyj walks us all through the scene, arranging and rearranging the traffic pattern to give life to slow moments and empty spaces on a stage he can somehow glimpse in his head through the maze of taped lines. From a row of tables before our taped performing space, a battery of assistants labor at notebooks and legal pads, keeping track of the myriad directions, cues and characters.

"This is the easy part," says Ed Seneff, 60, (Waiter Elegant Lackey), who edits books for the National Defense University Press at Fort McNair in real life. "Wait till the singers get here. Then the real fun begins."

Add Singers That happens on our third rehearsal. Among the 39 supers with our pink name tags throng 48 members of the chorus, singers of every size, shape, age and race, identifiable by big blue name tags. Dressed in everything from bluejeans to business suits (including polka-dot tights and one Holton-Arms sweat suit) they look, if it's possible, even less operatic than we do. But when they begin to sing, the full glory of what's happening begins to dawn. Massenet's music, vocally realized, is achingly beautiful, even in its still half-polished form.

All the principals are on hand except lead tenor Neil Rosenshein, who is committed to the Metropolitan Opera in New York for another two weeks singing "Die Fledermaus." Nelly Miricioiu enters the crowded room almost shyly, an unobtrusive woman with curly auburn hair and large, gypsy eyes, clad in a shapeless maroon sweater and black tights. She sits, almost unnoticed at Terleckyj's table, but when she finally begins to sing, the undercurrent of motion and murmur in the room suddenly halts, and we all stand riveted.

For some people, no doubt, Miricioiu (pronounced mirra-choy-oo) is just another highly competent soprano now in the ascendant, one of those who's been compared to the legendary "La Divina," Maria Callas. But to others of us -- and we can only be so objective about it -- she is much, much more.

One of the true believers is Addice Thomas, who as the Washington Opera's company manager has heard hundreds of sopranos over the past 14 years, yet found herself uniquely shaken on first hearing Miricioiu two years ago. She has remained mesmerized by the artist and her voice ever since.

"Nelly is one of the very rare sopranos who can actually color her voice differently according to the dramatic quality she's trying to achieve," Thomas says. "Hearing her is a profoundly emotional experience for me. I can't really compare it to anything else."

Craig Meyers, a big, easygoing "Manon" super usually more interested in offshore powerboating than coloratura sopranos, says only: "I don't know anything about opera. All I know is when that woman started singing in rehearsal the hair on my neck stood on end."

It is more than a little startling for a layman struggling just to act like a French waiter to see the level of vocal and dramatic finish opera singers bring to their first rehearsal of an opera they've never sung.

When we get to the second act, for example, soprano Edrie Means, and mezzos Gloria Parker and Janine Hawley, who play a flirty trio of young, high-life actress-courtesans, sing a lovely featured trio flawlessly, interacting like veterans on what is, in fact, their first performance together. They've never even met. No one finds this the least bit remarkable.

Nor do many appear to notice the delicious juxtapositions of operatic rehearsals: Means in a formal Regency pannier skirt and "Operation Desert Storm" T-shirt, halting precisely enunciated, lyrically sung French to ask "Isn't this bracelet kinda funky?" Or character tenor Jonathan Green, probably the best pure actor on the stage, transforming himself instantly with a single flick of the wrist or purse of the mouth into the mincing 18th-century roue' Guillot de Morfontaine -- despite such 20th-century trappings as horn-rim glasses, running shoes and a Boston Red Sox baseball cap.

Growing Into the Part The second act opens in the Cours-la-Reine, a colorful festival of ribbon sellers, puppet shows and assorted vendors, complete with a juggler and tightrope walker. Most of the supers parade in as elegant aristocrats to form a silk and brocade backdrop for Manon's sedan-chair entrance and show-stopping aria "Je marche sur tous les chemins." It's a sort of French-operatic "Hello Dolly," in which she coquettishly congratulates herself on reigning as Paris's queen of love and beauty and urges us to use our youth well for laughter and romance.

Nearly 100 singers and supers are onstage at one point in the act, and positioning is critical if we're not to block the side seats in the audience from a view of Manon in her moment of triumph.

Moving us all back and forth across the stage is a traffic cop's nightmare, and as rehearsals progress a certain amount of grumbling surfaces. It's a product of the natural tension between structure and spontaneity in the directorial process. Some singers think Terleckyj should have blocked more movements out in advance so we could spend more time on character development and less on scene structure. But Terleckyj clearly likes to let many onstage movements evolve naturally from the interplay of his actors. And he finds some winners.

For example, when Manon's devil-may-care cousin Lescaut, sung with definite swagger by baritone Theodore Baerg, enters the Cours-la-Reine, Massenet has him sing a rich aria among the vendors in praise of "Rosalinde." Usually, this is simply sung as a tribute to an absent love.

Terleckyj, however, seizing on Baerg's irrepressible comic flair, has him sing it as a mock seduction to a plump vendor woman, which Baerg does with rakish abandon, to the universal delight of the cast.

"And now you come drag her away, because you're her husband," the director says, on sudden inspiration, grabbing a nearby male chorister.

Over several rehearsals the scene evolves further until finally Baerg's exit becomes a hilarious forced one, in flight from pursuing women.

Each rehearsal we find a little more of our show on hand. One day we Act 1 waiters get trays to carry, another we get stage food for the trays. Finally I get my complete dish, a plastic lobster surrounded by mussels.

A week into rehearsals I get fitted for my costume -- an obviously crucial item in the world of opera supernumeraries. When the Washington Opera sends out a casting call for supers -- as it's expected to sometime this fall -- the 300 or so people who usually show up are carefully photographed and their bodies measured in detail. The measurements are not solely for costumes -- anti-discrimination laws, for example, forbid advertising specifically for fat supers, so the company likes to keep heavies on file. But many operas, like "Rigoletto" opening on Saturday, are rented or recycled productions with most of the costumes already made. In such cases Carol Pearson searches her files to find supers, fat or thin, to fit them.

For "Manon," a new production, the supers were chosen first. Most of the costumes of the principal singers -- as well as the female Elegants in Act 2 -- were custom-made to the orders of designer Zack Brown. Most of the others, like mine, were rented from a theatrical costume house in Toronto, which Washington Opera costume supervisor Gerry Scarbrough searched with a set of super and chorus measurements in one hand and Zack Brown's general color and period specifications in the other. Still other costumes may be found in the Washington Opera's own stock. Minor alterations are made at our individual fittings.

Once the costumes actually go on, of course, one's character as a super can undergo a subtle change. One can find oneself singing French arias in the shower, fretting about makeup and wig color and indulging other vanities and affectations suddenly defensible as "growing into the part."

"Did you ever suspect you were born too late?" I asked Anastasia Shaw as we danced a spontaneous minuet during an orchestral interlude backstage.

"All the time," she said, smiling over her fan and dropping a curtsy. "All the time."

The Beauty That Lingers For a Romanian soprano, the setting of Act 3 is almost providential -- a casino in the Hotel Transylvania. There Manon, having lured Des Grieux from a vow of holy orders, brings him to gamble in search of a fortune to maintain the fast life she loves. And there she sings what for some of us endures as the most hauntingly beautiful aria in the opera, "A nous les amours et les roses," a feverish carpe diem to the passion fruit of life. "Qui sait si nous vivrons demain," she sings -- "Who knows if tomorrow we'll live?"

It may be projecting -- or middle age -- to find in the heart-tugging notes of that aria more than a hedonist's yippee or a gold-digger's hymn. But then, that's what opera does to those who love it.

I'm not on stage when Manon dies in the next act. But that's life -- at least as a super.

I hand her champagne in the Hotel Transylvania. I share for a moment her time of love and roses.