Sunday, July 09, 2000

Super time at the opera

Low pay and long hours don't deter extra

        This isn't what Sunday morning is supposed to be. It's supposed to be a third cup of coffee while finishing the morning paper and trying to decide between fried and scrambled. So why is Mike Malenock wrapped in a hideously ugly black shawl and curled up in the fetal position on the floor at Music Hall?

        He's just being a super kind of guy, that's all.

        Mr. Malenock, 37, single, living in Liberty Township and feeling none too fetching in 10-feet of ratty shawl, is one of 200 supernumeraries (non-singing extras) working this summer's Cincinnati Opera season. Supers are the ones who fill the stage — crowd scenes, don't you know — making grand opera all the grander.

        It's a heavy-duty time commitment, this super business: They rehearse about 20 hours per opera, then perform twice, usually about six hours on stage. Most supers work in one, maybe two operas, usually juggling full time jobs and duties at home.

        In Mr. Malenock's case, it also means fighting Interstate 71 traffic and construction all the way in from Deerfield Township, where he's a quality assurance engineer at Digineer, a firm specializing in strategic Internet software services, primarily for healthcare and related industries.

        Luckily for Mr. Malenock, his day job pays a heck of a lot better than his opera job: Supers earn the princely sum of $4 per rehearsal and $6 per performance. On this particular Sunday, Pelleas et Melisande rehearsal runs 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 3-7 p.m., making today's salary a hearty 57 cents an hour.

        “I'm not doing this to get rich.”

        OK, then why?

        “To meet women.”

        Uh, any luck?

        “Well, it hasn't led me any closer to getting married, but I've made some friends.”

        Stir more. Move like you're having a bad dream. Make your body more diagonal. No, no, the other way.

        Cincinnati Opera artistic director Nic Muni's voice echoes across the cavernous rehearsal hall, now outfitted with a bare bones set — a few props, a fake village well and a 6-foot high bridge stretching across the hall.

        Like Mr. Malenock says, supers do meet a lot of people. When not onstage performing, they're sitting around dressing rooms waiting. Some play hand-held games, some read, some play board games, most of them just talk about anything and everything.

        “You learn a lot about people, all kinds of people, doing this.

        “The main reason I do it, and it's something other supers say all the time, is it's fun. It's total immersion, and that's a real kick.

        “But it's also the thrill of watching something come to life — watching the changes and evolution as the rehearsals go on, watching the principals take direction and incorporate it immediately into their performance.

        “It's being there for the birth of something.”

        Raise your knives higher. Remember, you're starving. When you rip the sheep apart and eat it raw, do it like you're hungry.

        “Ironic, isn't it? I am a vegetarian, a strict vegan, pretending to eat a raw sheep. This doesn't come easily.”

        The sheep in question is a life-size, sorry looking stuffed creature, badly in need of laundering.

        “I'll tell you another thing supers really like. We come in contact with the principals and these people, these world famous artists, are so nice to us. When I was in La Boheme last year, I had to interact with one of the principals and he went out of his way to give me direction on how to do a better job.

        “I know they always write up the star persona, that diva thing, but in the three operas I've been in, I haven't seen it.”

        Make the circle tighter. You want the audience to know you're ripping the sheep apart, but you don't want them to actually see it.

        And so they do it again, seven hungry supers pouncing on a pathetic stuffed sheep. Then they do it again. And again, 45 minutes worth, until director Muni is satisfied.

        “Nic really does work us hard, but nobody's complaining. Like most supers, I had very little exposure to opera before I started doing it. Some of them never even saw an opera. Now I'm a fan, and so are most of the people I work with.

        “Another thing I really like and that I think other supers like is the diversity. In Salome, we had two architects, a professor, two retirees and me. You can't meet that kind of diversity in the course of daily living.”

        Keep your heads bowed. And when you kneel, don't take a step back. Just go down on your knees.

        “The thing about doing this is the balance it brings in to your life. Opera is totally different from what we do at work. It sort of rounds you out.

        “I can't think of anything I really don't like about it, except I'd like rehearsals to be closer to work. That hour drive on 71 is pretty nasty.

        “I couldn't be doing it if my company wasn't being so fantastic about it. I asked them about it back in May and they said do it, that they'd work around it. Then right before Salome was the busiest two weeks of the year for us. They still said do it, but it made for some early mornings and late nights for me.

        “All my friends and neighbors, they ask why I do it. It's so involved and complicated scheduling everything. But the truth is, I get more out of it than it gets out of me.”


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