The word supernumerary originates from the Latin supernumerarous, which in opera parlance refers to "a person no one cares about and is often overlooked," or more simply, "a silent actor."
Briane Nasimok has been quiet long enough, having served as a super in 287 performances for the Canadian Opera Company in the 1970s. The Torontonian is making his Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival debut with his monologue Confessions of an Operatic Mute at Son of Warehouse.
"I hope the show gives voice for the silent," says Nasimok. "It lets people know those onstage in the background have something to say."
Supers, as they are known, are like movie extras -- non-singing volunteers who provide the dramatic background for the soloists and choir. They don't need to know an arpeggio from an aria. The appeal is being onstage with world-class sopranos and tenors, not unlike football fans getting to be on the field with the Bombers during a game.
Confessions of an Operatic Mute, which debuted at the Toronto Soulo Festival in 2013 and last year at the Toronto Fringe Festival, is a modest payback for all that opera has done for the 64-year-old Nasimok.
"I am who I am because of it," says Nasimok. "I want to say, 'This is what opera did for me.'"
His stage career was purely accidental, triggered by being taken to see the touring musical Oliver! at Toronto's O'Keefe Centre. He was only eight years old but immediately became bewitched with show business, and resolute about some day finding his way onto the O'Keefe stage.
"I was dreaming of being up there some day and that performing was going to be the Mount Everest of my life," he says.
Nasimok thought he was on his way as part of a college revue, which, crushingly, was cancelled after its dress rehearsal. The only upside was a friend of the music director was there looking for extras for the COC. Opera had never registered on his radar; his only knowledge of it was thanks to Bugs Bunny and his Looney Toons pals. The main selling point for becoming a super was that the COC worked out of the O'Keefe Centre.
His supernumerary debut was a 1972 production of Lucia di Lammermoor, in which he was cast as the elegant gentleman on the right. He remembers that during the orchestra dress rehearsal, the miked director was seated in the audience, ordering adjustments to sound and light levels. In the wedding scene, Nasimok made his entrance and walked to his spot, accompanied by the grand Donizetti music performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
"Suddenly, the director yells over the microphone, 'You, the one on the right. Yes you. You walk like a penguin. Don't,'" recalls the University of Toronto graduate with a chuckle.
He didn't, and built a sideline playing pirates, soldiers, waiters, servants and an array of people in the crowd.
"I was good at playing low-status dolts," says the performer, who will be staying in Winnipeg with old pal Stan Lesk, who is producing Confessions of an Operatic Mute. "I played a great henchman in Tosca, which I think is my favourite opera."
Nasimok made three tours of North America, never opening his mouth. On some two-show days, he would be an Italian in the afternoon and a German in the evening. He liked to joke that he became an accomplished extra because he could mute in six different languages.
"I think 85 per cent of the extras are doing it for the love of opera," he says. "You get great costumes, fabulous wigs and put on makeup. So I was able to live out my fantasy of being on that stage."
He kept coming back not for the money -- $1.50 per rehearsal and $2 a show -- but the priceless camaraderie of being part of a real company family and contributing to the appreciation of opera. Nasimok established an annual award for extra of the year at an event that evolved into him entertaining a good-sized crowd.
"I was fairly content to stay in the background because I had been there all my life," says Nasimok, whose last COC show was Aida at Toronto's SkyDome. "But then I turned into a standup comedian."
He became a comic to prove to himself that he was funny and was the second featured act at the first Yuk Yuk's in Toronto. He evolved into writing for TV, contributing to Fred Penner's Place, Genie and Gemini award shows and a Grey Cup event.
"My goal for Confessions of an Operatic Mute is that hopefully it will lead to a book," he says.