The Contes d’Hoffmann: Stage Craft for the Supernumeraries

Interview with Marie-Françoise Sombart, head of the Supernumeraries Department

By Irina Flament 07 February 2020

© Christophe Pelé / OnP

The Contes d’Hoffmann: Stage Craft for the Supernumeraries

For the revival of The Tales of Hoffmann at Opéra Bastille (until 14th February), Octave went to meet Marie-Françoise Sombart, the head of supernumerary actors*. Here she reveals the different aspects of her work with the supernumeraries, which she carries out in collaboration with Gilles Maurige.

What does your job consist of?

I recruit the supernumeraries needed for each operatic production and look after them from their selection until they get paid. I look for supers according to the profiles required, I organise the auditions and manage all the human resources side of their engagement (administrative information, contracts, attendance records etc.).

I am in close contact with all the departments concerned, particularly stage management with whom I work on a daily basis – in rehearsal and during performances-, but also with the production team, costumes, hair and make-up, the dressers, salaries etc.

The casting of children is a special case. During the last few seasons, stage directors have used children a lot. Their recruitment is particular in terms of how we look for them but also because of the type of dossier with a very strict legal framework which has to be sent to a commission.

To manage all this, I am assisted by Gilles Maurige, theatre manager at the Palais Garnier who also works with the supernumerary department at Bastille.

Robert Carsen’s production of The Tales of Hoffmann has become one of the Paris Opera’s show-case productions. How many supers are there? Is this what we call a “big” production?

The Tales of Hoffmann was first performed in 2000. Twenty years ago already!... Off the top of my head, in terms of extras, the biggest production was Francesca Zambello’s War and Peace from the spring of 2005, with 90 supernumeraries, dancers, children etc. The Tales of Hoffmann uses a total of 54 supers. That’s still a big production in terms of numbers.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, acte II
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, acte II © Julien Benhamou / OnP

What qualities are required for this production in particular?

Robert Carsen wanted something very “dynamic” involving a lot of work on movement in the crowd scenes. It is for this reason that he asked Philippe Giraudeau to choreograph these scenes. It’s the same for the Chorus. But in these crowd scenes, each person must also play the role or roles they have been given. In this production, just for the supers, there are no fewer than thirty or so roles to play from start to finish, sometimes with very quick costume changes.

How were the auditions for Les Contes d’Hoffmann organised?

Robert Carsen, as is sometimes the case, wanted to re-audition in 2010, because of the television broadcast. The previous cast and the director’s specifications made it clear what kinds of profiles were required: a range of builds and ages and the ability to work in a group.

Since that second audition, the cast has evolved and changes have been made in the spirit required by the production. Often, indeed, the director does not return for the revival of his production so the work is carried out in close collaboration with the assistant directors.

Les Contes d’Hoffmann, épilogue
Les Contes d’Hoffmann, épilogue © Julien Benhamou / OnP

Where do the supernumeraries come from? Is there a “pool” of them? Can anyone audition?

The supernumeraries who work at the Paris Opera are mainly show business professionals. They’re from theatre, dance or the circus. They’re trained and qualified in their field (theatre school, conservatoires, performing arts schools etc.) and are also freelance professionals.

We have a list that we add to every time a new artist is hired. In that sense, we can talk about a pool. We call upon them every time their profile corresponds to the requirements of the production. But we always try to integrate new artists who want to come and perform at a big opera house. In that case, we look at the CVs we have received and publicise the auditions in the various specialised establishments or, when we have very specific requirements, at employment agencies for the performing arts.

The auditions are closed. For organisational reasons for one thing: in the past there was an open casting call for which an endless queue of artists formed at 120 rue Lyon. We couldn’t see everybody because the director cannot spend the entire day on that. And also, for artistic reasons. The director asks for particular profiles and my role is to give him a selection of people that correspond to what he has asked for. My role as a filter is necessary to ensure the quality of the audition.

Has the work of the supernumerary department changed over the years?

I wouldn’t say that the work has changed. Our mission is always the same: finding the artist that corresponds to the role the director wants to develop on stage. And to permit that artist to do what s/he has been engaged to do under the best conditions.

New computer technology has made the job easier, allowing us to collate all the data on the artists we hire, thus to research according to profile and measurements. But one can assess the evolution of the supers in new productions.

The demands of stage directors are more exacting. Dmitri Tcherniakov, for example, has a very precise idea of the profiles he’s looking for. And since he’s been directing at the Paris Opera, it is not unusual to have to organise several auditions for the same production, until he’s found what he wants. And it’s very satisfying at the end to find it... at last!

Another requirement: that of finding the artists who will bring a “plus” to the production, without knowing what will make that “plus”! This was the case with Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski last season. He wanted a circus act without knowing exactly what kind or with whom. We therefore had to audition a lot of circus artists, whilst imagining their specialism and the effects that might best suit the wedding scene. And it was a hula hoop artist and somebody doing a balancing act with a baton who finally provided the effect we’d been looking for.

Finally, other kinds of profiles have emerged. Romeo Castellucci wanted to work on Moses and Aaron with handicapped artists. And there, it was a whole parallel system of organisation that had to be put in place in order to accommodate them. Dmitri Tcherniakov asked for the same thing last season for The Trojans but the autonomy of the people we hired, amputated but with prosthetic legs, made the arrangements simpler.

In both cases, it was the research that was very complicated and lengthy!

Has Robert Carsen intervened in the revival again?

No, Robert Carsen has not been back this time. Directors are rarely present for revivals. They leave the responsibility of restaging the production to the in-house assistant. The assistant is the stage director’s memory!

Robert Carson is one of the directors whose productions from the “Gall Period” (1995-2004) are regularly revived. The Tales of Hoffmann is his show-case production, and one that everyone adores taking up again! 

Depending on the Stage management department   

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