At our age, it’s time baby boomers reflect on some of the things we did when we were younger… much younger, in fact. As he writes from Silver Spring, Maryland, communications specialist Larry Checco was just 33 back in the year 1981. He never thought he’d be in an opera on the stage of the Kennedy Center in Washington in 1981. But he got the opportunity, and took it. And he still feeds on that memory.
The cattle call went out two weeks before opening night.
Newspaper and radio ads announced that the storied New York Metropolitan Opera Company needed supernumeraries— otherwise known as walk-ons, sometimes called extras— for its engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
I thought about it for a minute, then asked myself, “When will I ever again get the chance to be on stage with the NY Met?”
More than 300 local aspirants showed up at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage door at the designated time. They included current and retired government workers, small business owners, a linguist, a freelance cameraman, a retired submarine officer, unemployed people, and many others.
Many were fanatical opera buffs. Others, like me, couldn’t tell the difference between Verdi and Wagner, a mezzo soprano from a contralto. We were all bonded, however, by the desire to partake in the experience of a lifetime.
Unfortunately, the Met needed only 30 of us.
“I want you all to know that this is going to be pretty arbitrary,” said an assistant general manager as he went about selecting some tall people, some short, some heavy set, some thin, some with beards, others without. I lucked out. I think it was my beard. It certainly wasn’t anything related to talent.
Those of us selected were assigned to particular performances, told we would be treated like professionals and would be paid $7 per performance.
“What about rehearsals?” someone asked.
“There aren’t any.”
One of the three operas I was assigned to walk on stage for was Camille Saint-Saens’ grand opera Samson and Dalila.
The fateful night arrived. Makeup is applied to 20 “extra” faces in a matter of minutes. Then it’s down to the stage area for a brief description of the scene, a quick one-time walkthrough—and that’s it!
It’s Act III, Scene II in the Temple of Dagon. I and my 19 fellow walk-ons are dressed as Philistine soldiers, spears at the ready, and are marching at the tail end of a procession that puts nearly the entire cast on stage for the finale.
We are to stand watch during the bacchanale and witness Samson being ridiculed by both Dalila and the high priest before Samson topples the columns of the temple.
But the procession either starts late or moves too slowly. From the floor of the stage, where dancers lie in wait to start their choreographed orgy, we can hear in loud, almost frantic whispers, “Hurry, soldiers, hurry!”
Just as the last walk-on soldier desperately scrambles for his spot on stage, the dancers spring to their feet in wild dance.
“Relax and smile, boys,” quips one choral member. “This is supposed to be an orgy.”
From the vantage point— nay, privilege— of being on stage, the scene is a whirlwind of operatic artistry. The dance, the music, the costumes, the voices, the set, the staging, the lights, everything.
The energy is electric. You see the concentration and perspirationon the performers’ faces. You sense the stage floor undulating with every dancer’s leap, and you hear each orchestral note pound against your ears— only to be described as joyous controlled chaos.
If I felt nervous when I first stepped out on stage, by now it’s all been transformed into pure exhilaration. And it will last long after the pillars of the Temple are toppled and the curtain comes down.
Outside the Opera House stage door that night, small clusters of opera fans are waiting.
“Can I have your autograph?”
Larry Checco © 2021