by Grant Butler, The Oregonian Tuesday February 03, 2009, 3:00 AM
Faith Catthcart/The OregonianAbout 40 seniors serve the leads as silent supernumeraries in "The Turn of the Screw."
This week Sara Wolpin is making her operatic debut, and even though it's the peak of the cold and flu season, she doesn't have to worry about losing her voice. That's because the 75-year-old performer doesn't have to sing a single note. Wolpin is one of the 40 supernumeraries in Benjamin Britten's "The Turn of the Screw," which opens a four-performance run Friday at Keller Auditorium. Like an extra on a movie set, supernumeraries are nonspeaking actors used in opera and ballet productions to create believable crowd scenes. A few of this opera's supers, as they're called in shorthand, have been in shows before, but most are appearing on stage for the first time ever.
For Wolpin, it's the chance of a lifetime.
"Being a person who likes adventure, I decided to be adventuresome," says Wolpin, who describes herself as a "diva-in-training." "So here I am."
Supers are essential when lots of bodies are needed for sheer spectacle. When the Metropolitan Opera staged Sergei Prokofiev's "War and Peace" a few years ago, there were so many people onstage that one of the 200-plus supers tumbled into the orchestra pit on opening night.
Closer to home, when Portland Opera staged Beethoven's "Fidelio" last fall, 49 supernumeraries portrayed the prisoners, soldiers and townspeople rising up against tyranny. And for Verdi's "Aida" last season, some of the supers were bodybuilders who appeared wearing almost nothing.
But with "Turn of the Screw," the 40 supers do a lot more than serve as visual wallpaper or eye candy -- they are an important element of the ghost story's plot.
They portray the butlers, footmen, maids and charwomen of an extravagantly overstaffed English manor, where there's so little to do that the servants become living playthings for the two children at the center of the story. And because the servants have worked at the manor seemingly forever -- it's hinted that some continue to serve in the afterlife -- this production needed supers older than 60.
To find the supers, the opera placed ads in its "Fidelio" program, posted audition notices on its Web site and reached out to an association of retired Portland State University employees. The 40 who signed up range from opera fans jumping at a chance to be in a production to a senior softball champ.
Jennifer Hammontree, the production stage manager for Portland Opera, says, "I wondered, with an elderly crowd, are we going to need to be concerned about whether the wigs are too heavy or are the shoes too high. But their age is really not a factor."
Louise Beaudreau, 80, is a second-time super, having played a nun in "The Barber of Seville" a few years ago. She says the experience gives her an insider's perspective on opera.
"It's so fun to see how they pull it all together," Beaudreau says. "I think they do a tremendous job in such a short time. If you like theater at all, this makes it more exciting. You watch things a little more aware about what's going on onstage."
For Al Hudson, 86, appearing in "Turn of the Screw" is a coming home of sorts. When he was a graduate student at Stanford, he was in one of the very first productions of Britten's "Peter Grimes," which was performed at the San Francisco Opera House. "I never sang professionally, but I talked my way into the chorus," Hudson says. "That was so much fun."
Putting it together
During an early rehearsal for "Turn of the Screw," director Nicholas Muni is turning super George Dover, 58, into a jungle gym. Dover is instructed to drop to one knee and cup his hands so boy soprano Michael Kepler Meo can hoist himself onto a chair for a pretend horse ride. While swinging his leg over Dover's head, Meo ruffles Dover's hair and nearly knocks off his glasses.
"Oh, the indignities of being a super," Muni exclaims.
Dover has been through it all before. He's one of the few supers in this production with experience -- and plenty of it. He's been in numerous shows for Portland Opera and Oregon Ballet Theatre. He's found that the super experience in the ballet and opera worlds isn't the same.
"The big difference is, in ballet everything is done to music and has to be done to a count," he says. "In opera, your movement doesn't necessarily follow the music."
For Loren Sisavic, being in the show marks more than his first time on stage. On opening night, he will turn 70.
"I was going to have my 70th birthday party, but I'm postponing it by one day so I can be here."
Even though he has appeared as an extra in a couple of movies, being in an opera feels like a highly unlikely event.
"I come from the streets of New York City, and if I told my buddies I was here, it would be a very interesting conversation," he says.
Sisavic isn't the only one planning on partying. Wolpin plans to celebrate her role with a "diva brunch" the day after her big debut -- everyone is expected to wear tuxes and fancy dresses.
"My daughter has a lovely house, so everyone can make an entrance down the steps," she says.
And shouldn't a diva have a tiara? "I don't do well in tiaras," she says. "My hair is so white and nice. I worked so hard to get this white hair. I don't want to cover it up."