(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) As the grand drapes of the Royal Opera House Muscat (ROHM) came down exultantly on its season-opening production of The Barber of Seville last week, something quite different to the ringing chorus of applause went unheard backstage.
Quiet sighs tinged with, in equal parts, relief and rue. For 16 locally-based men and women, the first-ever extras cast in a ROHM production, watching the curtains fall on the final performance of the near 200 year old opera's Oman debut brought forth, understandably, mixed feelings.
There was comfort to be had in the knowledge that their labours had contributed in no small way to a successful rendition for composer Gioachini Rossini's comedic masterpiece. Yet there dawned also the realisation that their brief time in the sun had come to an end.
For, over the week prior, they had given it their all; holding up through the full-day rehearsals where their responsibilities were drilled into - and kinks drummed out of - them, standing under the spotlight in heavy, layered woolen costumes and finally overcoming nerves and putting on a show for the three performances.
''I think all of us would be quite happy to come back to do it again,'' said Alexander James Cowley, one of the 'commoners'.
''Getting to see the rest of the building, the goings-on behind the scenes, the stage, the trapdoor and sliding mechanisms, the atmosphere, the talent in the room. Everything was just brilliant.
''The audience only gets to see it once. As an extra, we got to see the opera about seven times.'' Cowley, who heard about the opportunity in an e-mail from his father, had jumped at the chance.
Though short on stage experience - ''I was just sitting in the corner trying not to mess up'' - his gamely enthusiasm saw him through. The same could be said of all the extras, of whom was expected not previous acting experience, simply a passion for and commitment to the production. ''Everyone had some background of experience: some drama in school or college. But there was no need to have professional training,''said Jules Ross-Brown, company manager, ROHM.
''Previous productions never really needed 'supers' (opera jargon for extras). They'd bring everybody along.'' Christina Scheppelmann, director general, ROHM finished the thought.
''At some point, we went, 'Do we really have to fly in 16 supers?' Jules and I said, ''let's try something else,'' Christina said. ''This (local extras) makes a lot of sense to me.'' Jules added,
''Considering we advertised for this project over the summer, when everyone goes away, it was very difficult to know whether we'd get the information out there to everybody in time. (But) we had about 40 odd people apply.''
When he answered the ROHM's casting call, Salim Basheer al Riyami, a Sultan Qaboos University student, never expected to be up on stage in the house's best seats, looking on as the famed Teatro San Carlo brought Rossini's characters to life.
''A few semesters ago, I studied in a music appreciation course. So, I got to learn about most of the things that happened here: the music, the choir, the orchestra etc,'' said Riyami, cast as a 'commoner'.
''But this was a great chance for me to actually be in one, instead of sitting behind a desk learning (about it) from a book.'' Naeem Manzoor, a sales manager, said essaying a 'soldier' decked in yellow-green livery and wield a musket was ''the achievement of a lifetime''.
''The audience only gets to watch the play unfold. Behind the scenes, we got to see the work that goes into the production. How it comes together,'' he said.
''We never thought we'd be performing before a live audience with international professionals. ''Even after the opera, people are asking me, Weren't you the soldier?' We're famous now!'' he laughed. For Susanne Sermen, one of eight women commoners, it was 'a great one-in-a-lifetime chance'.
''We'd got to learn almost all (of the play's ins-and-outs). Opportunities like that don't come along very often.'' That, and being given ''a free makeover each time by the wonderful make-up artists''.
Besides the obvious perks of being catered to by personal grooming assistants, the costume fitting sessions and dress rehearsals had the intended effect of inculcating in the extras a sense of the professionalism required of them and the importance of getting the details absolutely right.
''My costume was too big for me and had to be altered. Mariano Bauduin, the assistant director, paid attention to every little detail. He gave the extras the same amount of attention he gave the performers. It just showed how professional they are. Everything had to be 'Perfecto', said Manzoor. Riyami concurred.
''Whether it was a missing button or a tie off to one side, he would ask his assistants to stitch one on or straighten it out. Everything had to be perfect.''
The personalised preparatory sessions also showed the extras the company's commitment to them. It helped convince them that they were wanted. That they weren't outsiders. ''The company did a great job making us feel welcome. We didn't feel like we were fringe, unimportant people on the sidelines,'' Cowley said.
''We were part of the company, part of the play and we had our bit to do.'' ''We weren't treated like amateurs. They were amazing,'' agreed Riyami.
''The opera management even had translators, making it easy for us to ask the Italian artistes about what exactly we had to do. It made things very easy,'' said Manzoor. It also helped that the artistes themselves were very accessible. The bonding during rehearsals put paid to the butterflies and cold sweats.
''The whole team supported each other and became pretty tight-knit,'' Cowley said.
''Francisco, the singer who played Count Almaviva, told me he really believed in improvisation. That if something doesn't go the way it should be, it makes things more 'realistic'. That there was no wrong way to do something,'' Susanne said ''There wasn't any real pressure on us not to make mistakes (not even when supposedly sharing the stage with Rossini's great great great grandson),'' said Riyami.
''There was professionalism. The director gave us a chance to act free and even change things sometimes. There was no one set rule to follow.'' Christina said, ''The director already knew what he needed them to do. He knew the sequence of events. And then, of course, they (the extras) responded well. They got it.'' For Christina, the extras' 'getting it' was both a vindication of the ROHM's mandate and a testament to the unifying power of music.
''His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said's mission statement for the ROHM was about (building) cultural connections and (starting) cultural dialogue. That's what this theatre tries to do. It brings cultures and people together,'' she said.
''And, I am biased, but I do think that music does it best and so beautifully,it speaks to your emotions. It's not necessarily about whether you understand the actual words, but about the music speaking emotionally to you. Look how many nationalities, cultures we had on stage in this opera. That is what music is about. It doesn't matter where you're coming from.
''This, being the first time, we weren't sure what we were going to get. It's nice to know that there is a core group that enjoys it, that had a positive and fun experience. So, if we do need extras next time, we can start asking.''
At this, the extras perk up. A vote of confidence like that may mitigate the post-production hangover. ''I'm addicted. That chorus gives me goosebumps. I might just download the overture as a ringtone,'' Susanne said.
''I still have the overture on my mind. When I'm driving, I'll turn off the radio to sing it,'' Manzoor said. ''We have a Whatsapp and Facebook group now. If anything else comes up, I'm sure it'll be posted and we'll all be here. Even if it