Wednesday, October 30, 2019

a moment in the day: rice

The music swells, as music tends to do at the opera, and I'm standing on stage with the Admiral and our lady companion watching Cio-Cio San and Lieutenant Pinkerton get married. Matchmaker Goro sings, "Lo sposo" and then "Poi la sposa," and the young new spouses sign the 1904 Japanese equivalent of a marriage certificate. As the photographer steps in with an old fashioned camera to take his shot of bride and groom, I have my reticule ready, filled with the rice I'm going to throw.

There were various notes from the director taped outside people's dressing rooms after Wednesday night's dress rehearsal. Mine said, "Super American Ladies: Can you throw a little less rice? A little goes a long way." So tonight, opening night, I'm trying to remind myself. Don't throw three handfuls, just two.

I've been supering with the Portland Opera on and off for, my god, over ten years. Sharing a dressing room at fifty is very different than sharing a dressing room at thirty-eight. Especially when all your fellow female supers are thirty-eight or far, far younger. There's nowhere to hide with all those dressing room bulb lights on you.

Youth. When I was young and having rice thrown on me at my first wedding—or it was probably birdseed at that point—I was probably prettier than I knew, but I also didn't have a very good relationship with myself. Even on a wedding day in a shower of rice, or birdseed, I assumed that deep down self-hatred I'd carried since being bullied in grade school would always be there. It was, for decades. I think most of what it took to get rid of that—or mostly get rid of that—was age. Simply, finally growing up a bit. And maybe doing things like this. And public readings. Allowing people to see me no matter how awkward I feel in the world. Even in the unforgiving blast of dressing room lights.

Downstage, the photographer flashes his camera. Cio-Cio San and Lieutenant Pinkerton embrace. I reach into my reticule and remind myself: don't throw three handfuls, just two.

Grabbing my first handful, I grab, also, the bottom of the reticule, turning the thing inside out. Rice showers down.

I make a lame toss with what remains in my hand, to half-reach the bride and groom. My lady companion throws her two healthy handfuls, but the rest of my allotment is on the Admiral's shoe.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

a moment in the day: bustle

The opera super women's dressing room for Madama Butterfly is small and crowded. I'm pinned between the counter and the wardrobe rack with a concrete wall to my back and three other super women and our dresser crammed in front of me, and I love the bustle of it all. From the little speaker mounted by the ceiling come the sounds of the goings-on down on stage, including various commands from our stage director as we lead up to the Piano Dress Rehearsal.

"Chorus Men to your places."

I'm almost ready—makeup done, wig and hat on, stockings and shoes on. Petticoat. Skirt. The funny, little bustle that will help me look like a turn-of-the-last-century lady once this whole getup is in place. It's a pillow of white cotton fabric that poofs out over my backside, with extra padding over my hips to create the illusion that I'm wearing a corset. There's a strip of white ruffle at the edge that I guess is used to keep the transition from body to bustle smooth, and white laces sewn in at the sides, which I've tied across my middle to hold the thing in place, but as my dresser comes to help me on with my blouse, she examines my look and says the bustle is too high.

"Can you undo it and then retie it lower?" she asks.

I try to pull it open but it's stuck. "Shoot. I did it in a double bow." I pick at the loops and the knot in the center.

The dresser tries to help me get it loose.

"I was afraid it'd come undone in the middle of the performance," I say.

Laura, the other woman who plays an American wedding guest, with matching bustle, leans in to us. "If you want to drop something on stage, it might as well be your booty."

Thursday, October 17, 2019

a moment in the day: share

It's opera rehearsal day five, at least for Stephen and me. We're partially-costumed—Stephen in his opera shoes and military hat, me in my opera shoes and with my petticoat over my jeans—standing on a riser on the practice stage. I have my reticule, hung from my wrist, and a brown, wooden dowel rod that acts as a stand-in for the parasol I'll eventually get.

He is "the Admiral," and I'm "the Admiral's wife." It's 1904. Nagasaki, Japan. The Admiral and I are guests at the wedding of Cio-Cio San and US Naval Officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.

And we're doing what background performers do a lot, which is hanging out and talking to each other, quietly, behind the action. While Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton sing downstage, the Admiral and I pretend to carry on a conversation with Laura (a fellow wedding guest) and the opera singer who plays Sharpless, the American Consul. This fake-talking thing seems like such an easy way to insinuate yourself into showbiz—you don't have to sing; you're just part of the action—but I still find it a little stressful. Like being at a party with people you don't really know. Trying to think of things to say.

Now Stephen, I mean the Admiral, does what he always does at this point in the production, and goes to talk to the young Naval officers positioned on a platform behind us.

I say, "Well, the Admiral's left me again."

Sharpless says, "Maybe he's arranging to get you a fifteen-year-old husband." A reference to Cio-Cio San, who's about to become Pinkerton's fifteen-year-old wife.

Scattered across the practice stage around us, the chorus sings in Italian. Back when I was in high school drama class, someone told me that when people in the theater act like they're talking at once, they're all just saying, "Peas and carrots, peas and carrots," over and over.

When the Admiral comes back, I say, "Did you get me a fifteen-year-old husband?"

"No," he says, "I thought the husband was for me."

Laura, with a petticoat over her clothes and a dowel rod in her hand but poised with the perfect elegance for an early-twentieth-century lady, leans in and suggests that maybe we can share.

I say, "I like to share."

Sharpless says, "I like Cher!"

We all agree. We all like Cher.

The chorus sings beautiful harmony.

Sharpless turns to Laura and says, gentlemanly: "Do you believe in life after love?"

She considers this. She nods sagely and answers in the affirmative, with one condition: "If I could turn back time."

Monday, October 14, 2019

a moment in the day: a romance

It's the first day of opera rehearsal for Madama Butterfly, and I sit in a chair on a riser on the practice stage wearing a white petticoat over my jeans. We're at a break in the action. The director is explaining something to a group of choristers off to my right while the rest of the actors scattered across the opera studio room relax on their marks and chat quietly.

Before me, in the area that would be downstage if the stage were more than just a floor, the stars of the show are half-sitting, half-lying, together. She is Cio-Cio San, a fifteen-year-old Japanese girl. He is US Naval Officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who has just leased a house in Nagasaki that comes with, among other things, Cio-Cio San as a wife.

Pinkerton thinks this marriage thing could be a bit of a lark. Cio-Cio San, on the other hand, is so smitten that she's given up her religion and become Christian in order to be faithful to him.

Tragedy, of course, is just around the corner. This is the opera, after all.

But in the meantime, Cio-Cio San and her BFF Pinkerton smile, lean back across the practice stage, taking a selfie with Pinkerton's phone.