Opening night and I have a final exam to give my freshman literature class at 11 a.m. I repress the urge during the two-hour exam to tell my students that I wish they’d hurry up with their final, because I have an 8:30 p.m. call at the Met. I anticipate this exchange with my worshipful young charges:
STUDENT NO. 1: A call? My word, what’s that?
ME: Oh, that’s what theater professionals call showing up at a designated time before the performance. You know, so your dresser can make sure your costume is fitted properly and all your needs are attended to. For instance, I might require a throat lozenge or tea with lemon.
STUDENT NO. 2: (Because interest is building.) You’re an actor?
ME: Why, yes, you could say that. I will be performing tonight at the Metropolitan Opera.
(I watch them absorb the fact that their freshman-lit teacher has unknowable depths. They gaze back admiringly.)
STUDENT NO. 3: Do you have a big part?
ME: Ah, as the Bard said, there are no small parts—
STUDENT NO. 4: (Interrupting.) Do you sing?
ME: No, well, no … I am what the Metropolitan Opera calls a "supernumerary"—which means a nonsinging actor—in their production of War and Peace.
STUDENT NO. 5: So what do you do?
ME: I shogum marsh. I leyvoi, and napravo. I ravanyais! And smirno. That’s Russian. It’s all very complicated.
STUDENT NO. 6: So you march around? You’re like an extra.
(I knew STUDENT NO. 6 would be a problem. He’s Russian.)
This doesn’t happen, of course. I avoid mentioning my performance to current students, at least, who might lose respect for their instructor if they imagined him in tights and a big hat. But it doesn’t mean that all day long I’m not trying to think of how one should prepare for an opening night at the Met. I don’t want to get injured (lest someone take my spot), so exercise and ice skating are out. Concentration is difficult, so grading papers is out of the question, too.
I make sure I’m at a nearby Starbucks three hours before the 8:30 p.m. call time to avoid being waylaid by any unforeseen transportation problems. It is impossible to have a conversation with me. I might be watching your mouth move and nodding, but I’m thinking, At 8:30, I’ll be in the Orchestra Room putting on my uniform_. The opera will already have been underway for an hour. I revel in the insider knowledge that some performers (_like me!) arrive an hour after the audience members have taken their seats! I read Anna Karenina to stay in a Russian frame of mind, which will allow me to tap into my Russian soul, if indeed mine is Russian. But I’ll admit it’s hard to concentrate on Vronsky’s fecklessness and Anna’s misery while thinking about those blinding lights and those 8,000 eyes riveted on any mistake I may make.
The dress rehearsal three days before the opening night made clear all the different ways disaster might strike. It was the first time we rehearsed with all the accessories. The stovepipe hat has to remain level, though it wants to slide, even with the chin strap. At one point, we are supposed to remove the chin-strapped hat with one hand while genuflecting. At the same time, we are to make sure that the sword on our left hip doesn’t stick into the stage, and that the rifle over our right shoulder doesn’t fall off. When marching, the pleather straps of the backpack keep slipping down my back, my rifle keeps sliding off my shoulder; my sword is either tripping me or poking the next soldier.
The competing tempos make marching all the more difficult. There’s the orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, the frenetic conductor profiled on 60 Minutes_. There’s the 1776-style pipe-and-drum corps, which is called the “banda” and is led by a stooped 90-year-old in whom I have no confidence. A big bass drum pounds somewhere offstage. “That bass drum is really distracting,” I say to William. “What bass drum?” he says. Maybe it’s my heart? We try to listen to “the beat,” but there are three distinct rhythms, not to mention the order of "_leyvoi," which, no matter what the music is doing, we are trained to respond to by lifting our left leg up immediately.
Once I secured my place in the Ismailovsky regiment, my next obsession became my place within it. But at the dress rehearsal it’s in jeopardy. I managed to hold on to a very enviable front-line first-row position in the line of march: third from the front of the column, directly behind William, whose constant string of innuendo and perfect sense of timing made regimental life a delight. It’s hopeless for me to try to follow the beats, some of which might be imaginary. I know now that I march well only when those in front of and next to me march well. I hold on to this front position through many rehearsals. Then, at this, the last rehearsal, I’m moved three spots away from William. “For reasons of height,” Sasha says to me quietly. Now, as I said, I know my pompon is smaller than most, but I remember, from the first rehearsal, that lack of height is always the charitable reason substituted for the other, more obvious and painful reason: lack of talent. He puts me back with those whose height is approximate to mine. They are 13-year-olds—the wispy sons of chorus members.
I’m still in the front row, but I’m worried this will lead to further shifts, once it’s discovered I only march well in the neighborhood of good marching. And, even at the back of the column, I’m looking at shoulder blades.
This 13-year-old just ahead is taller than me (I’ll give him that), but he has very little control over his lanky limbs. He doesn’t have a hat yet, and he has two distinct methods of tossing his blond surfer’s locks: (1) a full head swing to the right, which sends his backpack sliding down his back, or (2) a Kennedyesque right-hand scoop-and-brush, which causes him to let go of his rifle strap. Each time he releases the strap, the affixed bayonet drops level with my right eye. My head jerks back, and my steps become a John Cleese clip reel of funny walks. The 13-year-old behind me keeps stepping on my heels. My missteps are their fault, and I despair at finding the beat among the slouching shuffle of preadolescents. I’m sure I’m going to be moved from my front-row position to the back row, where I can’t be seen. Or, worse, I’ll be put at the very end of the column, where I’ll be nearly offstage. After bragging to my wife and friends about my primo front-row position, I kick myself figuratively, as I’m kicking myself and others literally, for possibly losing it.
Walking off the moonscape after rehearsal, I catch up with Sasha. I explain how the floppy-haired teens were to blame for my incompetence, but his weariness tells me he’s seen every misstep. He does not meet my eyes when he says, “Yes, it only takes one or two persons to throw everyone off.” He looks back at me in a steady, opaque way that suggests that I might be that person. And I could be throwing others off, for all I know. But are they complaining to Sasha like a little girl’s blouse? No. By doing so, I’ve drawn attention to myself. His look makes me feel all of this. I know I’ve done the equivalent of blaming 13-year-olds for my mistakes in other parts of my life, and, what’s more, Sasha’s look tells me he’s got my number.