LONG BEACH — Sixty bright-eyed hopefuls sat lounging on folding chairs amid a gaggle of music stands.
"OK," began the director. "We want three elegant men for couriers, three burly guards and three monks who won't have trouble carrying a coffin."
"I think I'll make a good heretic," offered Ilona Bush, a 38-year-old Long Beach paralegal. "My true self will come out."
Added J. C. Chauvin, a management development consultant: "I was a Catholic, so I know how (priests) act."
Thus began the first rehearsal for the largest scene ever staged by the Long Beach Opera.
The would-be guards, monks and heretics were a cross-section of Southern Californians, age 13 to 70. Smart-looking young men in blue business suits next to middle-aged women wearing jeans. A newlywed couple chatting with singles out for adventure.
Though their backgrounds varied, they had one thing in common: a desire to share, if even for an instant, the limelight of an traditioned and extravagant art in which few of them are versed.
"What a way to see your first opera," said Randy Hill, a local optometrist-turned-guard.
The particular opera involved is "Don Carlo", a musical extravaganza written by Giuseppe Verdi in the 19th Century and set for performances Thursday and Saturday at the Terrace Theater.
A complicated drama depicting the great political, dynastic and religious conflicts of 16th-Century Spain, the opera will be performed entirely in Italian with English titles projected over the stage. An ambitious work, the play's second act culminates in a huge public spectacle--amid the various reactions of onlookers and townspeople, heretics are burned at the stake by soldiers of the Spanish Inquisition.
Of the 150 performers required for the scene, according to director Christopher Alden, 80 are costumed "supers"--called "extras" in the movies--who have no singing parts.
"Their presence is required to heighten the excitement of the grand opera," said Michael Milenski, the company's general director.
Heretics, Torture Victims
Among the specific characters employed, said Alden, are heretics, torture victims, guards, monks, priests, peasants, soldiers, and both high- and lowborn townspeople. "It's the apex of the piece," he said of the scene.
In the past, said Milenski, the company has obtained supers--who perform for free--through word of mouth from within the somewhat limited local community of opera performers. This time a new tack was tried.
"We wanted the opera company to be part of the community," he said. "And we wanted to give the community a chance to be part of the opera company."
An added incentive, he said, was the sheer volume of the scene--the largest ever attempted in the company's eight-year history.
So public service announcements were placed in several local newspapers offering a piece of the stage to anyone willing to attend 10 rehearsals in a two-week period. About 300 answered by calling a special phone number, according to John Traub, who screened the calls.
"I basically made sure they didn't have any stage experience so they wouldn't be a problem," said Traub, whose title is 'super captain.' "There wouldn't be enough glamour (for professionals); what we were looking for was people who just wanted a good seat for the opera."
Some of the 60 who ultimately showed up, however, had slightly higher aspirations.
Bill Smith, a 35-year-old part-time math teacher and student of voice from San Pedro, said he came for the professional experience.
How did he feel about being cast as a torture victim? "I think it will be fine for a start," he said. "One year you're a torture victim, the next you're in the chorus and maybe the year after that you have a leading role."
Others had their own reasons for coming.
Mike Rocha and his wife, Linda, both 28, said they came because they had never been to an opera, and, as newlyweds, enjoyed doing things together.
"We try to be active in our community," said Linda Rocha, adding that she thought she would make a good heretic.
Dresses Up as Alien
And Rick Thady, a meat cutter wearing a "Lost in Space" T-shirt who said he earns extra money on weekends by dressing up as a space alien and renting himself out to parties, explained that his participation in the opera would keep him "brushed up" on stage terms. "It beats sitting home and watching TV," said Thady, 30.
As do most first rehearsals, this one had its share of problems. For starters, the group--which originally gathered in a lecture hall at California State University, Long Beach--had to move to the university's music room, which was more accommodating. And confusion had its due while directors and assistants huddled to sort out just who would be doing what as the supers wiled away the time in their folding chairs.
Chauvin, after being assigned the part of a male priest, was switched to the role of a female peasant. "It's not elegant," she said of her new part, "but . . . I won't have to disguise my sex."
And several other women, upon asking whether they were to be burned at the stake, received a curt reply. "Yeah," said a member of the crew, "but you don't all get your own stakes. You have to share."
In the end, though, everything seemed to come together. Traub said that he would get the rest of the required supers from a long list of those who had called. And Alden--who 24 hours earlier had flown in from his home in New York City to stage this opera--spent some time showing the guards how to move before he sank into a chair.
"My admiration is mostly for the man who assembled all these people," he said. "Anyone who can round up this many people has my respect."
And the humongous scene?
"It's a logistical nightmare," Alden admitted. He paused a moment before finishing the thought. "But among the greatest to . . . direct," he said.