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Scott Parson, dabbler in typestries and fabulations

Opera In My Shorts

Nothing prepares you for being on stage with a world-famous opera soprano when she lights up her larynx in front of an audience at a New York premiere. All I can say is, if you find yourself in that predicament, make sure you've tucked in your shirt and buckled your pumpkin pants extra tight. If you didn't, at least make sure you start the night in something more professional than your lucky underwear. You know the ones. The pair with the red chili peppers that glow in the dark.

What started out as a way to make a few bucks acting as background for New York City Opera's production of La Loca, turned into sharing the stage with Beverly Sills all by myself. I did not have to sing a note. It was my opera debut, the highlight of my entire operatic career. Which lasted one performance. It was the most thrilling half-second I've ever spent on stage. If I ever have to put together an acting résumé again, it goes right at the top.

Scott in costume for La Loca

Lincoln Center NYC

The opera was premiered on the West Coast at the San Diego Opera. This will be important later, so make a note somewhere.

They brought it to New York to stage its premiere here. For which they needed supernumeraries. These are the people who fill up space on the stage as crowds for the balls, brawls, and peasant uprisings that round out an evening's entertainment at the opera.

Lisa had pointed out to me the notice in Backstage, the casting newspaper for theater, film, and television. At the time, I had no love for or knowledge of opera, but she encouraged me to give it a shot.

Could be fun, she said. She's smart and knows fun, so I agreed to go. Acting is acting. But singer friends scoffed, saying no real acting is required. Just show up on time, fit the costume, and stay out of the diva’s way. Like the good old days.

I showed up at what was then the New York State Theatre in Lincoln Center for the audition, with about a hundred other guys. The people running the casting call lined us up, had us count off by shoe size, then hunched together, tick-marking the roster in front of them. Satisfied, they called out a half-dozen names, including mine, and dismissed everyone else, thanking them for their time.

We got the job, we were told, because we looked like we would fit the costumes. Fifteenth Century Spanish soldiers, with knee-high boots. Having the right shoe size is what set us apart from all the other wannabe supers. I realized that it was my saying I was a size eleven that sealed the deal. See? All those acting classes finally paid off. I'm actually a ten-and-a-half wide. I just acted like I wore an eleven. Luckily, I had a pair of extra-thick socks I could wear to the fitting.

I showed up for rehearsal, which lasted one day. But the whole gang was there. Ms. Sills, the baritone John Brocheler, the director Tito Capobianco. Menotti was there, too. One of the other soldiers pointed him out to me. Menotti. Just sitting around, like a regular person.

It came time for our scene with Ms. Sills, playing Mad Juana. I was one of four soldiers who would carry a coffin across stage. Stop. Set it down. Wait for Ms. Sills to sing over it. Then take it up and carry it off stage. Piece of cake.

Until we lifted it. The thing must have weighed five hundred pounds. We staggered as best we could to the spot where we were to stop and wait for Ms. Sills. The stage manager took a note from the director and relayed it to us. The director would like it very much if we could march in step in a stately, funereal manner. He'd appreciate it ever so much if we didn't stagger like drunks looking for a place to pee. Would we be so kind? Of course we could, when he asks so nicely. Through his stage manager. Who probably cleaned it up before delivering the note to us.

It's about that time I noticed how skinny we soldiers were. The stage manager gave an apologetic shrug and said when they premiered the opera in San Diego, they had an impressive array of heavily muscled beach boys to tote the thing around. No one bothered to think about the casket's weight. Sorry.

Well, dang. We were resolved. Those west coast actors might be better looking, exceptionally muscular, and unnaturally strong, but us east coast actors were wily. Admittedly, whatever satisfaction we took from that at the time did not translate into any useful help hefting the quarter ton of polished oak with its fake corpse crafted in something durable. Like concrete. We still weebled across the stage, but we were in step with the music and we held in our grunts of exertion, letting the strain on our faces stand in for military seriousness.

I guess it satisfied Mr. Capobianco, because he let us go and moved on to the next scene, but not before I was tapped to play the captain of the guard who opens the prison cell door to the baritone coming to bother Juana for not abdicating her throne. I perfected my jailer’s scowl and did my best mime work, opening and closing the imaginary door. Not that anyone noticed. Ah, well. No small parts, only small actors.

Once we finished that scene, they sent me off for my costume fitting.

Scott in La Loca Costume as Captain

Scott in La Loca costume as pall bearer

Down in the bowels of the costume shop I was issued my uniform and helmet – heavy, high quality fabrics and accessories – and my moustache. This was not high quality. These were the kind that are made of coconut husks, sold in joke shops in a plastic sleeve stapled to cardboard. I offered to do my own (I carried an extensive array of crepe hair for just such emergencies), but the assistant costumer said no. I could, however, use my own spirit gum.

The night of the performance we were herded together by the assistant stage manager for our entrance. We got our cue and began our march across the stage.

Okay, it is impressive to walk onto a stage that size, lights that numerous, and an audience that big. It gets the juices flowing.

You know what else gets the juices going? Standing three feet in front of world class soprano when she unleashes her epiglottis for real. Cuts loose at full power. Cranks it up to 11. Rattles the rafters. It wasn’t like this in rehearsal.

Did I mention I was standing three feet in front of those weaponized vocal chords? Blew my dime-store moustache right off my face and stuck to the back of the soldier in front of me. Then, it felt like my shirt rolled up to my armpits as my pumpkin pants and tights billowed like sheets on a clothes line, just like in the cartoons, until she let go the note.

I'm a professional. I'm not going to look down to see if my boxers were now the featured attraction. All I could imagine was that we were going to get the cue to start moving and I'd have to shuffle off with my pants around my knees and over my boot tops. So I waited, soldierly, listening to Ms. Sills sing into the cement face of the corpse in the coffin. She certainly had voice enough for three people.

When she finished we were cued to pick up the coffin and start our slow procession off stage. Lurching really, the ligaments in our shoulders stretching like linen bands. But solemn.

When I got off stage, I was relieved to see that my costume was intact, having survived hurricane Beverly. I was still presentable.

Then it was time for my scene as captain of the guard. The stage manager cued us. I opened the door for the baritone through which he stormed to sing something derogatory to Juana. Then he turned to leave, I opened the door again and off he went in high dudgeon. I paused for that half-second to deliver the subtle scowl as I'd rehearsed it. This time, unlike the rehearsal, she was looking at me. Eye contact. A true moment on stage. Acting with theatrical royalty. Unless she was wondering why I hadn't left yet so she could get on with the serious business of singing. Time, tide, and music cues wait for no man. But as I said, I'm a professional. I can work with whatever I'm given. I emoted, packing half a dozen years of acting classes into that half-tick of the clock, made my exit, and pulled the cell door closed.

Emotionally drained I went back to the dressing room, changed into my street clothes and turned in my costume. I signed out and left the theatre with the opera still going full tilt. I guess I wasn’t needed for the curtain call.

La Loca Curtain Call

Hard to imagine, but notices were not good. You can find the New York Times review here if you have a New York Times digital subscription. Fortunately, I’m not mentioned, so they can’t pin the blame on me. But the picture almost includes me.

Nevertheless, I'd had my half-second and as any opera buff will tell you, it's not about quantity. It's about quality. Unless we're talking about Boris Gudonov, which is all about quantity. Five hours of opera quantity. But that's a different story.

I don't perform anymore, but when I hear recordings of Beverly Sills, I still get Bubbles up my spine.

Text (c) Scott Parson

Scott in costume: (c) Scott Parson from personal archive
Lincoln Center: “Lincoln Center, NYC” by Andre Chêdas at, licensed under CC BY 2.0
La Loca Curtain Call: from YouTube video, posted by Bruce Greengart