'Aida' casting call attracts dozens of buff extras

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At 69 years old, heavier than he'd like to be, former steel worker Fred Rokasky knew he might not get one of the roles as the scantily clad, buff spear carriers for the Pittsburgh Opera's upcoming production of Verdi's famed ancient Egypt-based opera, "Aida."

"You don't get to pick, so I'll probably be a [uniformed] soldier," said Mr. Rokasky of Squirrel Hill, one of nearly 50 men who turned out Saturday at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History for the Pittsburgh Opera's open casting call for spear carriers, soldiers, priests, slaves, boatmen and litter carriers. Appropriately, the auditions were held in front of the museum's Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Still, Mr. Rokasky said, if they need him for one of those roles as a spear carrier -- who would have to appear in front of up to 3,800 opera fans for four shows at the Benedum Center in October wearing what amounts to a mere loincloth -- he is ready.

"It wouldn't bother me, standing there topless," he said. "I'm a nudist anyway. So being partially nude wouldn't bother me."

The last time the Pittsburgh Opera put out a casting call for the dozens of male extras needed for "Aida," it didn't go so well.

Needing about 60 men in 2008 for the roles known collectively as supernumeraries, or just "supers," they got just over half that many. In particular, the number of truly buff, muscle-bound men who were needed to hold those crucial roles as spear carriers and litter carriers, and help give the opera its grandeur, were lacking.

In the weeks before the show opened, "the assistant director [Crystal Manich] had to hit the clubs and gyms and bars looking for the guys we needed, handing out her card," said Christopher Hahn, the opera's general director.

"It was desperate recruiting," the opera's director of production, Jerry Sherk, recalled.

But Ms. Manich -- who returns this year as director of "Aida" -- got her men.

Her successor as assistant director/stage manager, Tara E. Kovach, was determined not to have to spend time herself recruiting in gyms, clubs and bars.

"I started working on this in April," she said Saturday afternoon near the end of the casting call, choosing the ye olde Egyptian setting at the Carnegie to help boost recruitment (and surely spur media coverage). "I tried to be proactive."

She put out leaflets in local gyms, and posted notices on Twitter and Facebook, knowing that the opera would need the extra push to supplement the 20 supers from 2008 who had already agreed to return.

The demographically diverse array of technicians, talk show producers, steel workers and at least one high-schooler who showed up validated Ms. Kovach's approach. The crowd included more than enough muscle-bound men to fill those important cheesecake roles.

"I'm thrilled," Ms. Kovach said after the casting call ended. "This should give us enough."

On Tuesday, the opera will also announce who will play the non-speaking role of "Champion of Champions" in this year's "Aida." That is a character held out by the Egyptian army as their best soldier -- a role played in 2008 by wrestling icon Bruno Sammartino to rousing cheers. Mr. Hahn said this year the opera plans on having local professional athletes play the role.

Everyone who showed up on Saturday earned a role. Each will be paid $100 for up to 38 hours of rehearsal over two weeks in September and October, followed by four performances.

"It's less about the money and more about the experience," said Chris Arter, 43, an information technology technician from Oakland.

After doing some extra work in some local productions of movie and television shows --and getting a small speaking role here and there -- Mr. Arter thought doing "Aida" might help open up some new doors.

"Who knows, you might be someone who can help you," he said. "Plus, being a local guy, it will be a thrill to stand on stage at the Benedum."

It is definitely not about the money for Marcus Charleston, 40, a radio talk show producer from Squirrel Hill, who performed in a Baltimore opera production of "Aida" in 2008.

"They gave us two free tickets to the dress rehearsal as payment," he said. "So, $100 seems like a lot to me for this."

Dressed in a tight-fitting, rust-colored shirt that accentuated his muscular physique from his regular morning weightlifting sessions, Mr. Charleston immediately caught the attention of Ms. Kovach, who asked him if he would be willing to be a litter carrier.

"We need some guys who really are fit and strong for that," she said. "Not just their arms, but I have to see if they have healthy knees and backs and can handle carrying the litter" that carries the pharaoh onto stage.

Mr. Charleston agreed to be a litter carrier -- one of the many roles that are crucial, but go largely unrecognized by the bulk of the crowd beyond each extra's family.

So why do they do it? Why put in nearly a week's worth of rehearsals and four two-hour performances for $100?

"Being on stage at the Benedum, being part of this massive performance, even seasoned veterans of the stage find it awesome," said Mr. Hahn. "Most never get to experience something like that."

That's what Mr. Rokasky -- scantily clad or not -- is hoping for.

"This is a life experience thing," he said. "I won't be climbing Mount Everest or sailing the ocean. But this is something I can do locally to add to my experience."

"It's like Woody Allen said: 'Eighty percent of life is just showing up,' " he said with a smile.

theater - region

Sean D. Hamill: shamill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2579.


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