x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

My tiny role is frozen

The hopes and the heartaches of the extras recruited for the Abu Dhabi performances of La Bohème.

They also act who only stand and serve, so attention to detail is everything as Charles Whebell is fitted with the costume in which he will discharge his duty as a Parisian waiter in La Bohème.
They also act who only stand and serve, so attention to detail is everything as Charles Whebell is fitted with the costume in which he will discharge his duty as a Parisian waiter in La Bohème.

I wanted glasses and a decanter; I was given plates. I would have gladly accepted the coffee jug; I had to settle for a menu. Life as an extra in the first opera ever performed in Abu Dhabi at the Emirates Palace Auditorium can be heartbreaking. There are 10 of us performing Puccini's La Bohème, one of the world's most popular operas, tonight and tomorrow night. Well, OK, there's another 186 crew, cast and orchestra of the Giacomo Puccini Company flying in from their base in Torre del Lago in Italy - known by opera lovers all over the world as Puccini's Italy - to give us a hand, but where would they be without us 10 extras, or as we have proudly named ourselves, the Ten-us?

You have no idea how many hours it takes to perfect the throwing of a cloth over a table so that it falls perfectly flat the first time. And you try placing a lighted oil lamp on that same table with the flame flickering over your hand while the rest of the cast have the relatively simple task of singing merrily away.

Honestly, Ana María Martínez, who sings Mimi, and Luciano Ganci (Rodolfo) have no idea just what real pressure is. And do they have to put up with being demoted and having their glasses and decanter taken away from them? Certainly not, but that's exactly what happened to Johanna Muskus-Suttie. Johanna found out about becoming an extra when she received an email from Abu Dhabi Mums, of which she is a member. The Venezuelan mother of 2½-year-old Hannah and front-office manager for the Hilton hotel on the Corniche did not hesitate to apply, admitting that she would "love to become an actress".

Things started well for her. Not only was she given an oil lamp and a menu, but she was also handed the part of placing a coffee pot and the glasses and decanter on her table. For hours she practised until she had mastered it. But then, the next night, seemingly from nowhere, along came David. A chartered surveyor for an Abu Dhabi property consultant, David Pine-Coffin originates from Putney in London and looks every inch an army officer. With upright stance, pulled-back shoulders and chin held high, he was the obvious choice for the glasses and decanter. So Johanna was left with the lamp and the coffee pot.

She contained her disappointment very well - I would have been livid to have had my glasses and decanter stolen. Then there is Jeffrey Serwalo. Jeffrey is a 20-year-old South African who is a student at Abu Dhabi Cambridge. Knowing his love for drama and music, a teacher told him of the hunt for extras. A confident lad, he had no hesitation in saying yes. After all, he doesn't suffer from stage fright because he and a group of friends make up a rap band which regularly sings at clubs and private parties. Rap? Opera? It's all the same to him.

I'm really jealous of Assyl Yacine. The 19-year-old Algerian gets to make a fool of himself - deliberately. When he walks on to the stage to hand a customer his bill he trips, dropping it on the floor. I'm sure the audience will roar its approval. A student at the Paris Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, Assyl admits to being nervous. "I did a bit of acting in assembly at junior school. I guess this will be a little different," he says innocently. Along with another young man, the 15-year-old Mexican Jurge Palacio, he even gets to be on stage as the lights go down, handing the final bill to a surprised Alcindoro, a rich and elderly government minister. There they are at the front of the stage as the curtain falls for the end of Act II. How lucky are they!

I might moan about my part as a waiter, but as least I am performing a good, honest job. Unlike Tanja Kettle. Tanja, who works with autistic children as well as being a fitness instructor at Abu Dhabi's Shangri-La hotel, is a liar and a vagabond. Dressed as a gypsy, she pretends to read palms before running off with a woman's bag. She's chased off the stage by soldiers - the best place for her. And she a mother of two young children!

"I'm used to the stage," she says. "I have sung in choirs, so when this opportunity came along I couldn't say no." Neither could Susan Peterson and Ceilan Hunter Green. In fact, as well as not saying no, they don't do anything on the stage either. The lucky things get to spend the whole of Act II on stage, sitting at the tables, looking pretty and accepting my menu and plates - and David's glasses and decanter - with condescending nods. I'm not bitter. Honest. It will be Ceilan's first appearance on a stage - "I have worked backstage for a school play" - and possibly her last, as the 18-year-old student is returning to Washington in the United States in May to continue her studies. "Not a bad place to make my debut," she smiles.

However, the extra-lucky extra has to be Mark Fisher. As "Head Waiter" he stands centre stage, giving us stern looks and admonishing us if we dare do anything wrong. With his white hair and austere appearance he could easily be mistaken for a school master, which is not surprising because that is what he is.

Mark comes from the island of Guernsey but has lived in Abu Dhabi for 15 years. He is a teacher at Abu Dhabi Men's College and was tipped off about being an extra by a friend who knew he was an opera buff. "This is so exciting for me," he says. "I've appeared in amateur dramatics before but this is in a different league altogether. I'm starting to get nervous already. I just cannot imagine what it is going to be like standing there in front of all those people in one of the most impressive theatres in the world."

While we Ten-us are showing the world-class opera singers something to which they can aspire, the director Luca Ramacciotti and his production assistant, Gianluca Morini, keep a very careful watch over us all. "It is a great honour for us to put on the first opera here," says Luca. "We are all very proud. It is a remarkable venue and I am sure we will put on an opera that will do it justice." It was Ramacciotti 's decision to take the glasses and decanter away from Johanna and give them to David. By such decisions can failure or success be measured.

It was also his decision to keep a few of us Ten-us back after rehearsal on Sunday night. "Charlio, wait after please, with Davido and Assylo." My heart raced, Was I getting the glasses and decanter? There had been a rumour that more extras were needed in Act III. Ramacciotti was looking for an extra to sit centre stage and play cards. This was my chance to show I could be more than just a waiter. I could be a somebody.

Ramacciotti looked at us. His eyes came to rest on David. "Per piacere," he said to him. Now, I know my Italian doesn't reach much further than quattro formaggi when ordering a pizza for delivery, but I knew enough to recognise that as well as stealing the glasses and decanter David had stolen the part as a card player. I'm a journalist, get me outahere? No, get me in there - plates, menu and all.

The Puccini Festival Opera presents La Bohème as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival tonight and tomorrow at Emirates Palace at 8pm. For more information, see www.abudhabifestival.ae.