It was September 1973, almost a month before the official opening of the Sydney Opera House by Queen Elizabeth II. I was 11 years old and a child extra (usually called ‘super’ in opera) in The Australian Opera Company’s production of War and Peace.
Like my younger sister, I was a refugee, and our stage directions were to go on with members of the chorus, looking sad, lost and hungry. We wore sack-like costumes and we had smudged dark makeup on our faces, to make us look like we’d been to hell and hadn’t yet made it back. I remember a highlight was that we were given black bread on performance nights to eat on stage. I’d never eaten black bread before. It was so different – I loved it!
In the past, whenever I recalled that first performance, I always thought that I had been pretty cool, calm and collected about being on stage. But I’ve watched myself in a video of that performance recently – Opera Australia made it available to view online – and I’m gazing up overhead at the lights, and all around the set, goggle-eyed.
Someone had advised us not to look at the audience but to focus on the action on stage, to become completely immersed in that world. But I was never very good at doing what I was told and so I did once look out at the audience.
I had thought, because the houselights were down, that I wouldn’t be able to see anyone anyway so I was shocked that I could see people in the front three or four rows. I remember seeing women dressed in very fancy gowns and gorgeous jewellery that winked back at me. I quickly decided it was terrifying to have all those eyes focused on us and from that moment on, I took the advice to simply become part of the world onstage. And what a world it was – of costumes and scenery and makeup and music.
At the end of the scene, I was required to walk all the way across the stage to exit on the Prompt side. One of the most beautiful things I saw in that videoed performance was my dad, in a Russian-style costume, pull me in for a quick hug and a pat on the head as I walked past.
War and Peace has a large cast and as I recall it, we were all on stage for the final curtain call. After the curtains closed, I remember people laughing and hugging and backslapping and just hanging out for what seemed like ages, nobody wanted to leave the stage. It’s that memory that inspired a similar scene in The Understudy.
I was a super in other performances of War and Peace, and in a season of The Magic Flute. I was also a super in Cavalleria Rusticana and wore a beautiful long white dress. But despite the gorgeous gown, I don’t think anything really compared to being in that first performance of War and Peace. To be on that stage, on that night, in our brand-new opera house was, quite simply, magic.