“Please refrain from singing onstage even if you know the opera,” is the instruction that resonates the loudest for me from my “one night only” performance at the Sydney Opera House.
Opera Australia offers 10 walk-on roles each year in its production of La Boheme in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, and this week was my chance.
Over the past five years, Australian opera aficionados as well as tourists from the US and Korea have paid $5000 for the privilege of donning costumes, wigs and make-up and treading the boards of this world-famous stage.
When the invitation came for a cameo in the chorus as a Parisian prostitute, I wanted to sing for joy, until I received my instructions not to.
“We’ve had a few over-enthusiastic opera buffs start singing the aria mid-solo on stage so we need to be clear you just listen to those around you,” La Boheme Revival Director Liesel Badorrek tells me when we meets in the rehearsal room.
I’m to appear in the upper balcony as a Bohemian in the Café Momus scene in Act II of the Puccini classic, set in 1930s Berlin, in the last days of the Weimar republic. I’m told there will be real food and fake wine, and I’m to “ooh” and “ahh” – but no more.
A few days before the performance I go to the Opera Centre at Elizabeth Street for a fitting for my costume and wig. The costume department is a delightful den of brocades and buttons and home to more than 250,000 costumes. Senior ladies cutter Beryl Waldron and wardrobe production manager Bronwyn Jones choose a courtesan-style costume for me, and nip and tuck it according to my measurements. La Boheme’s costumes, designed by Julie Lynch, are as sensuous as the set, a hedonistic wonder of revolving balconies, fringes and fishnets.
They adorn me with my own fishnets, gloves and jewellery, and I feel like Frank-N-Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
“Don’t be getting any ideas,” Ms Jones warns, and I promise not to sing.
My wig is selected by Carla D’Annunzio, who is in charge of 2000 real hair wigs at the Opera Centre. She swaps out the Liza Minnelli-esque black bob she’d originally chosen for a blonde one.
On the night of the performance my outfit is waiting for me in my own change room at the Opera House, with my name on the door and stage lights around the mirrors. After a quick tour back stage and in the orchestra pit, I’m taken on set and shown the steps to climb to the balcony I’m to perform from.
Then it’s back to the dressing room to change, my hair is pin curled, wig fitted and my make up done by Andrew Keshan, head of performance makeup and wigs and a 25-year Opera Australia veteran. He goes for the silent movie star look, in keeping with the opera’s era.
Anika Vilee, associate producer and my chaperone for the evening, walks me through the green room and we take the lift to back stage. It’s surprising how noisy it is. Offstage opera singers pace up and down singing under their breath – the children’s chorus peals past. I start asking questions in my very best stage whisper – but people talk at the top of their voices. There’s so much noise on stage it’s unlikely the 1500 people in the audience will hear, I’m assured.
Stage manager Phil Serjeant tells me how he hated opera until he got a job here in 1993 and has been hooked ever since.
Principal soprano Julie Lea Goodwin, who plays Musetta, stops for a chat and everyone wishes me “toi, toi, toi” the opera equivalent of “break a leg” for luck, uttered by singers as the house lights fade and the conductor lifts the baton.
There’s a hive of activity during the first scene change and we get closer to my scene.
Perhaps sensing my nerves, my chaperone tells me: “Don’t forget to breathe,” before I walk up the stairs. This is good advice as by now I am practically hyperventilating. The last time I felt this nervous was just before they pushed me out of a skydiving plane on a travel assignment.
But when I walk on stage my nerves disappear and I am transfixed by the lushness. Chorus members whisper what to do. They pour fake wine into plastic glasses and we toast the party scene. I grip the red velvet pole for dear life, and laugh and look shocked on cue. The lights are so bright and the scene so glittering, I don’t even notice the two topless performers on set, all I see is the real hot dogs on the stage below.
Suddenly, my 16 minutes of fame is over in what seems like seconds.
When I walk offstage I don’t burst into tears, like many of the walk-on roles have done in the past. I do, however, shed a tear watching the final act when I’m in the audience, after a quick change back to civilian gear after the interval.
My performer’s high last a good 24 hours. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I may not have been “La Stupenda” but I did remember not to sing.
Helen Pitt is a journalist at the The Sydney Morning Herald.