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A Supernumerary Life


Anyone who doubts that editorial writers can dance need only visit the New Haven Lounge in Northwood Shopping Plaza of a Thursday evening. But if you want to see me naked, you must come to the opera.

For the last three weeks I have been rehearsing and performing in the Baltimore Opera Company's production of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut." It has been quite an experience.

Like Puccini's later masterpieces, "Manon Lescaut" is a tragic tale whose central characters are ordinary people caught up in ++ what the English writer Eric Hobsbawm called "an unresigned ++ and voluptuous welcome for the pains of love." The music is astonishingly beautiful and captures perfectly the obsessive character of physical love that is at the drama's core.

I hasten to add that no one will have to endure hearing me sing a single note. My contribution consists wholly of filling supernumerary roles -- small, non-singing parts -- that exist only to lend authenticity and color to the scene. In the movies, they call such people "extras."

In the first act, for example, I play a waiter at the 18th-century rural French inn where the heroine, an alluring young woman named Manon, meets and runs off with her lover, the ardent but impoverished youth Des Grieux.

In the second and third acts, I play a soldier who participates in Manon's arrest and imprisonment after she has been convicted of prostitution and theft. Thus I am present during the harrowing scene when she and Des Grieux are shipped off to a penal colony in the New World.

During rehearsals our director, James de Blasis, was too busy with the principal singers and chorus to pay much attention to lowly "supers" like me. But once, during a smoking break, he did try to explain what he expected of us.

"Imagine a painter creating a picture," he said. "First you draw the broad outlines, then you fill in the scene by adding layers of color and detail. Each detail by itself is unimportant. But by building them up in layers you create texture that the audience feels and responds to even though they aren't aware of it."

I hadn't been on a stage since my sixth-grade class put on Gilbert & Sullivan's "H. M. S. Pinafore" in 1960. So after Jim's talk, I began observing the leads, the chorus and the other "supers" carefully. Then I basically tried to make up a character I thought would fit in.

No, I am not going to suggest that I discovered a latent Laurence Olivier lurking beneath the mild-mannered exterior of the editorialist. In fact, I was mortified to learn that, in addition to donning two different costumes, I also would have to undergo the ordeal known as "wigs and makeup." Me, in a wig!

Still, I was struck by certain unexpected correspondences between my "stage" life and the other one.

For example, though I was unsure up to the very last moment whether I could actually pull the thing off, after the opening-night last Saturday I was dumbfounded by how many friends, co-workers and acquaintances simply did not recognize me.

I'm told this happens often, but I still have a hard time believing it. It is as if the carefully constructed identity one assembles over a lifetime suddenly collapses, leaving a void that other people -- audiences -- rush to fill.

It's an odd feeling to stand a few feet in front of your landlord, your neighbor, your boss from work and realize that you are, for all practical purposes, invisible -- that they literally do not and cannot see you.

On the other hand, invisibility confers a certain power -- perhaps because it stems from the peculiar vulnerability one experiences on stage that is not altogether unlike disrobing in public -- which carries its own risks. A friend's mother, for example, remarked approvingly on my portrayal of a swaggering, leering guard in the third-act embarkation scene. "I didn't know you had it in you," she said sweetly. And I thought, Oh dear, maybe she thinks I do have "it" in me.

The writer Ralph Ellison said that accepting one's invisibility is the first step toward reclaiming one's humanity. Ellison believed we are all invisible on some level, both to each other and to ourselves.

So perhaps being on stage compels one to consider how much of "real" life is also an act. I'm not going to worry about it much, though. After all, aren't the two mirror images anyway -- each an illusion of incidental but convincing detail, a piquant splash of color from the master's pallette?

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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