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The ‘Other’ Opera Stars

Volunteer 'Supers' Flesh Out Casts

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Above image credit: Supernumeraries help to keep the action moving in operas as well filling in the numbers for a party or crowd scene like this one from the Lyric Opera’s production of "La Boheme." “Supers” aren’t required to sing or say lines and are volunteer positions. (Contributed | Cory Weaver)

James Symmonds doesn’t have a fear of heights, nor of tight places.

That made him perfect for a part in his first opera.

Never mind that Symmonds doesn’t sing. He’s a hiker and a climber, which is exactly what was needed in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s production of “Everest.”

In this opera, based on the true stories of three climbers caught in a blizzard on Mount Everest in 1996, Symmonds was expected to ascend the 35-foot set created to replicate the world’s tallest mountain.

“It’s still crazy to get to say I’ve been in a real opera,” says Symmonds, 47, of Liberty.

James Symmonds ascends the 35-foot stage set in the Lyric Opera's production of "Everest."
James Symmonds made his debut as a “super” for the Lyric Opera in November 2017 production of “Everest.” Symmonds, in red jacket on the left, begins his ascent on the 35-foot-high set created to represent the world’s tallest mountain. (Contributed | Cory Weaver)

Symmonds is an opera supernumerary, often called simply “supers.” In movie jargon, he might be considered an extra.

“It is often the work of the supers to keep the action moving forward whether they are serving food or drink as wait staff, filling in numbers for a party or crowd scene, or in many cases moving the scenery or props on and off the stage to set the scenes,” says Sarah Zsohar, the Lyric’s Artist Services Manager.

A super might play a dead body onstage for the entirety of a 45-minute act in “Hamlet,” or be cast in “The Magic Flute” and asked to dance wearing a giant animal costume designed by famed artist Jun Kaneko. 

Symmonds once wore a rain poncho and a chicken mask and danced around on stage for a dream sequence in “The Barber of Seville.“

“That was pretty surreal,” Symmonds says. “It was a blast and I think ‘Barber of Seville’ was the most fun.”

Supers can be cast based on many things, such as their costume requirements, their availability to make rehearsals and performances, or their experience and skills.

“Sometimes the director may wish to audition the supers being cast in their production,” Zsohar says.

But mostly these are non-singing, non-speaking volunteer spots.
Once cast, a super is given information about the role and a small handbook outlining expectations.

“It is very important that the supers are as informed as they can be about the production and what will be expected of them,” Zsohar says. “Most supers who do not have any previous opera experience have a blast and end up working on several operas,” 

Like Symmonds. He’s done six operas.

He is surprised how much fun he has, particularly since his only previous exposure to opera was sound bites in pop culture.

“And I’m that person that dreaded speech class and projects at school where we had to present to the class,” Symmonds says. “To this day, I’m still shocked that I get up there and do this. I figured I’d be that person that freezes up under the lights and audience.” 

By day, Symmonds provides software quality assurance for new development at ScriptPro, a company that does pharmacy automation and management. It really wasn’t his plan to be a regular super.

“I figured I’d get a chance to do one and be able to say I’ve done an opera,” he says.

Once Symmonds had a prominent role as a guard in a scene when the lead soprano performed a solo.

 “She was on one side of this door, and there’s me on the other side. It was really cool because I am the only one on stage with her,” Symmonds says. “It kind of gives you goosebumps.”

And it can give a person even more.

“Experiencing music in this immersive way shows them the depth of an artform many don’t get to experience,” Zsohar says.

The newest Lyric Opera super is Colin Rosewicz.

Last year, the 27-year-old from Overland Park felt settled into his career as a clinical laboratory scientist for Viracor-Eurofins, a clinical diagnostic company, and thought it was time to explore a hobby. He began his search remembering his love of working as a technical crew member in high school theater productions.

Colin Rosewicz, a 27-year-old clinical laboratory scientist, made his debut as a supernumerary as a waiter in the Lyric Opera’s production of "LaBoheme" last fall.
Colin Rosewicz, a 27-year-old clinical laboratory scientist, made his debut as a supernumerary as a waiter in the Lyric Opera’s production of “LaBoheme” last fall. (Contributed | Cory Weaver)

“I just started looking at different production companies in the area for any volunteer opportunities they had,” he says. “The Lyric was the only one that listed openings for being a super.”

“I figured I would just shoot for it,” Rosewicz says.

His debut was in “La Boheme” last fall. He was a waiter and a drunk student. He poured wine in one role and in his other role, staggered across the stage from the effects of too much wine.

“It was exciting and I had no stage fright,” Rosewicz says. “I haven’t had any stage fright at all so far. Part of that could be the confidence and professionalism of the choir and primaries, but going out on stage is like just doing another rehearsal for the most part. Everyone does such a great job, that it makes me confident I will as well.”

He says everyone is friendly.

“You would kind of think it being an opera that they would have a little nose up in the air – but they are all very nice,” Rosewicz says.

Rosewicz has two super roles in this week’s production of “Lucia Di Lammermoor.” He’s a servant – pouring more wine. And he’s a pallbearer in the final scene.

“I am kind of surprised I am doing this,” Rosewicz says. “I am certain that my dad didn’t expect to see me in an opera.”

Yet, it was his dad who took him to see his first opera. Rosewicz was 10 years old when his father won tickets at work to the opera production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” 

“I think that experience did spur my interest in live productions,” Rosewicz says.

Overall, the experience is fulfilling.

“Walking into the first rehearsal early for ‘Lucia Di Lammermore’ I was able to catch the primaries practicing and I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear,” Rosewicz says. 

“This is easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.”

Flatland contributor Debra Skodack is a Kansas City-area freelance writer.

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