Supernumeraries have to be stoic and prepared for anything
Supernumeraries have to be stoic and prepared for anything
Courtesy Houston Grand Opera

Top 10 Opera Malfunctions: Spit, Too-Tight Tights and Choking

The Houston Grand Opera has issued an open call for supernumeraries - the people who stand in the background around the opera singers - and no experience is required. You get a little pay, free tickets to the opera and a chance to be on stage with opera greats.

There are also some dangers involved, as Brian Mitchell, the archivist for HGO, who has also worked as a "super" since 2004, has detailed in his own version of a Top 10 list. We've attached some further explanations after an interview with Mitchell, who appears in anywhere from three to five shows a season.

Props can malfunction at any time. Brian Mitchell is the guard on the right
Props can malfunction at any time. Brian Mitchell is the guard on the right
Houston Grand Opera

The top ten 10 ½ worst things that can happen to a supernumerary during an opera:

10.5. Having to wear tights/dance belt.

10. Having to wear tights/dance belt that are TOO tight.

"In Faust I was dressed in this devil suit which is skin-tight red tights. It was full body tights. I had to wear this dance belt. It was so tight. I just felt naked. I felt so exposed. As soon as my part was done, I ran off stage," Mitchell said.

9. Getting spit on by opera singers (They spit a lot when they sing. I mean GALLONS.)

"It's crazy how much they've spit. Susan Graham, she turned. We were supposed to be these priests and she was against us and she just turned and this big glob of spit lands right on my face. I had to stand there and look stern. You can see the sprays perfectly...They're just spitting on each other all the time."

8. An opera singer does something completely unrehearsed on stage (it's okay, they're only acting).

"The first show I did. We were supposed to grab her [the soprano] and pull her offstage and she would just always let us. We finally got on stage in one rehearsal and we went to grab her and she threw her arms up. We're like, 'whoa,' and we both stopped and we looked at each other and the director gets over the god mike --you know the one everyone can hear over the stage -- and he goes 'She's only acting guys; go ahead and take her off.' It was really embarrassing."

7. Singing along with 40 other men in the chorus and having the conductor stop rehearsal because you sound so bad that he can hear you (never ever sing if you're a super).

6. Making a blind entrance through a door and standing directly in front of the soprano while she is singing her aria (this one could end your career as a super). "We were going to open in two nights. I hadn't had any rehearsals at all. And they said 'Go through this door and look at the soprano and act like you're taking direction.' I go through the door and I'm standing right in front of her while she's trying to sing this aria. And she grabs me by the shoulders and just moves me to the side. She never stops singing. Oh my God, I just stood in front of the soprano."

5. Choking on a piece of candy on stage during a 12-minute aria (never eat on stage...EVER).

"There's always candy backstage. You pop in a hard candy. It was a really long aria. There was supposed to be a monster coming. And they're singing about oh my God, this monster's going to kill us. And I'm choking; my eyes are pouring water, I'm coughing my head off."

But he didn't learn his lesson. He did it in another production.

"These guys getting knighted. I was supposed to direct the ceremony. I gave the guys cues about when they were supposed to go up and get knighted. I just kept wiping my eyes."

4. Forgetting, dropping or breaking your prop (you're a guard for goodness sake! Where is your sword?!).

"You pull your sword out and you just have the handle. I just put it back and hopefully try to get it back on. Props break all the time. "

Brian Mitchell is on the right foot of the elephant in Aida
Brian Mitchell is on the right foot of the elephant in Aida
Houston Grand Opera

3. Having your prop gun NOT shoot on cue (don't just yell "BANG." They will only laugh).

"The guy was supposed to shoot me. His gun didn't go off. He tried it again. Nothing. He threw his gun kind of at me so I did what I was supposed to do and fell down like I was shot. And then the curtain went down."

2. Having a 20-second quick change (quick changes almost always involve some degree of public nudity).

"I was a guard and then I had to be a monk. I had 20 seconds. I jumped off the stage and I just put my arms up. I had three dressers. They ripped my clothes off and threw the monk robe over me. I was walking blind. "

1. Having to lift/carry/catch/throw an opera singer (they are not always the lightest people in the world--those high notes take a lot of muscle!--and supers ALWAYS have to lift/carry/catch/throw them).

Mitchell, who is six feet tall and known for being able to lift singers, was called in at the last minute to one opera. "There was a physically big singer. By the time this guy got to rehearsal they figured out that the guys that they picked couldn't lift him. They were too small. So they said 'okay we need you.'"

In Dead Man Walking, he'd been assured by director Brian Burns he wouldn't have to do any lifting - they had other people for that. "But sure enough we had to pick up the opera singer and put him on the execution table."

Mitchell says he hugely enjoys the work, and contrary to the diva stereotype, has never met anyone he didn't like among the opera stars.

There will be an open casting call on Saturday August 13 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Wortham Center, 510 Preston. Information is also available at www.houstongrandopera.org/auditions.

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