Making It to the Stage as an Opera Extra

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Writer Shannon Dunn had no experience singing or acting. But one day, she decided she wanted to be in the Baltimore Opera's production of La Boheme. She found the perfect opportunity when she volunteered as a supernumerary, or an opera extra.


Writer Shannon Dunn has never been a singer or an actress or a soldier. But one day she found herself in uniform parading across the stage in the Baltimore Opera's production of La Boheme. Here's her story.

Ms. SHANNON DUNN (Writer): One day in my parking garage this woman told me I had star quality. I was just standing around waiting for someone to bring up my car, which was this awful 20-year-old Volvo with 300,000 miles on it. And this woman says to me, you have star quality, you should go to Hollywood or some place like that. And I guess I am kind of a diva because I didn't really question it, I just worked on accepting it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DUNN: I don't like the theatre that much at all, actually. I actually don't like plays. So I decided that I would call the opera and see if they had any parts for me. And to see if there was anything, a non-singing, non-dancing, non-acting part.

Unidentified Woman: Thank you for calling the Baltimore Opera...

Ms. DUNN: And they said yes, that there was this part called the supernumerary, which is the super for short, and that you were just kind of a walk on part, like an extra, that moves the plot along. And I could do that.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DUNN: And when I asked what they were doing, they said they were doing La Boheme, and all I could think of was some day when I die someone will read my obituary and, huh, did you know Shannon Dunn was in La Boheme? But I didn't think I had to audition, that was a problem. Because I thought that I would just have this part. They would just come and tell me you are flower girl number seven. But that wasn't what they did.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DUNN: When I got there the director tells all the men to line and says, okay, this is the marketplace and you're going to be selling chestnuts and flowers and things like that. And so they start doing all this mime and it's kind of something I'm not comfortable with. I'm not comfortable with people just miming around me. And then she calls - she says okay, now all the ladies come up. And ladies, you are going to be shopping in the marketplace. And so we walked through the market and all the other women know what they're doing except for me. And I am so stiff and so awkward but I'm trying so hard. And evidently I wasn't very good because 10 minutes into it they stopped the audition. And she said, okay, you know, thank you for coming out. Bye.

So I said, well, does that mean I don't a part? And she said yes. And I started to leave, but I realized that I kind of really wanted this a little more than I thought I did. And I got a little teary. When the rehearsals were supposed to start the next Monday, instead of just not going, I - I got up and I got dressed and I just went to the rehearsal space and like, you know, I walked in and they said, you know you were fired, right? And I said no, no, no, I'm - it's okay, I'm sure - I'm sure a spot will come up for me.

So the third night I went back and they told me that the bugle player, who was also a super, was sick. So the director says - offers the part to me. And she says it's a mans part but I think you can do it. And you know, you need to learn to march, and then she looked at me and said, well - and don't wear the red lipstick anymore.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DUNN: We get to the night of the dress rehearsal.

Unidentified Woman #2: We're probably going to wait like five, ten minutes.

Ms. DUNN: I'm in my costume and running around trying to keep - practicing my marching and trying to be so on time and good. And I'm so nervous about this thing. I don't want to mess it up. So we get up - we have to run up these huge flight of stairs to get to the back of the theater where we march through. I get to the top of the stairs and I realize at the door that I'd forgotten my hat. And basically this is, you know, you have to have the hat to be a soldier. I forgot my hat and I had to run back. So I have to run back down, all the way down, way down to the basement. But I made it, I jumped into line, got in formation and Musetta's Waltz is just ending and there's all these people on stage and they're townspeople and they're clapping and they're waving and they're calling us and they're calling us, and they're pointing to us and waving and smiling, and so we go marching. And then we march across the stage.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DUNN: The music is so intense. I always cry at the opera. I was bawling through this whole thing. And I'm marching across the stage, trumpet soldier, crying. And I am part of the opera, not - with no talent and I am now part of the opera.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. DUNN: And at the end I go and my mother's at - I ran into my mother at the end and I said, well? And she said, oh, you were the prettiest soldier in the whole group. And somebody else told me that I was out of step but I didn't really care because I got to be in La Boheme.

My friend Sarah sent me this quote which I keep on a sticky taped in my bathroom. And it says, you must remember this. At any moment you must be prepared to give up who you are today for who you could become tomorrow.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Freelance writer Shannon Dunn lives in Baltimore. That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. From NPR News I'm Debbie Elliott.

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