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Salter of the Earth

Stephanie Salter first got hooked when she was assigned to do a first-person piece about supering for the old Examiner Sunday magazine in 1985 and performed in a Werther (right) with Alfredo Kraus. Since then, she's been in about twenty operas and keeps �a huge album with photos, programs, Super souvenirs, notes from others Supers and some of the columns or stories I wrote about specific productions.�

Even those of us who haven't had the pleasure of supering with her know her from the Whine Awards at the annual party. Originally designated for the Super who complained the most, the criterion was re-thought after she awarded it to herself two years in a row. Now it goes to the Super(s) who had the most reason to kvetch but elected not to�most unusual behavior in our crowd.

Stephanie had a storybook Midwest upbringing in Terre Haute, Indiana��high school cheerleader (best job I ever had).� After graduating from Purdue University in journalism, she spent a few years in New York working at Sports Illustrated. She came to our fair city for the usual reason: love. �The romance didn't last, but my affection for this city certainly has.�

She grew up entranced by the American Musical, of course, and credits her dear friend Blanche Streeter, who is on the Merola board, with patiently educating her in opera, beginning in 1981, and she has held season tickets ever since. She's also become fond enough of supering to perform with both SFB in the Nutcracker and the Kirov when they were here on tour.

Salter's been on staff of the Examiner or Chronicle for twenty-seven years, a columnist for sixteen of them, and now writes two or three pieces a month for the weekly �Sunday Living� section unless she's working on an investigative piece, which she does about once year. You can read some of her archived columns here.

Stephanie reminisces about some of her on- and off-stage moments:

What was your favorite rôle?

I think I just had it, as the homeless woman in Act 3 of this year's Bohème. I mean, I really got a chance to emote, and John (�Digital�) Martin was a great Hume Cronyn to my Jessica Tandy. Being part of the ensemble in SFO's first Elektra (with Dame Gwyneth Jones in 1991) was a close second. My first (and maybe only) end-of-opera curtain call. What a rush!  

Your least favorite?

I've repressed it. They all seem bad about the fourth rehearsal when the director is in major anal-retentive mode, Supers are standing around growing moss and the diminishing sands of time in one's personal hour glass of life seem to be falling at an accelerated pace. I will say that the 1990 Ponnelle Rigoletto (left) was the most painful role ever (it even beat being in the Hockney Magic Flute griffin costume�ask Priscilla!): we women Supers had to do the can-can in high-heeled platform shoes that were made of concretized painted leather and� really�wood.  

Which one would you say represented you personally?

I think being a maid and then a hotel guest with Andrea Kohlruss in Arabella in 1998 (right). It was so �easy to be me.� Playing a nun during the �Te Deum� of Tosca is never a stretch either, not because I'm nun-like, but because I'm thoroughly electrified by the musical and dramatic tension of that scene�all that lust and love and power grabbing going on in secret in church! It's the human condition. Being a converted Catholic also helps.

What do you like to get cast as?

Anything that does not require that I must stay stock still, especially downstage. My one stint as a handmaiden during the Hockney Turandot (Gabrielle Schnaut and Audrey Stottler) was a constant struggle to keep an anxiety attack at bay. I like to move onstage; it helps release the extra energy.  

What have been some of your favorite onstage moments?

Greeting guests with Andrea in Arabella; soliciting johns with Rene deJarnatt in the 1988 Bohème (Pavarotti and Freni two feet away? Who cared if they were �too old� for the parts?); my first Tosca (left) in 1992 (I fell in love with one of Scarpia's henchmen; it ended badly but, boy, what memories I have!); swirling around as a fairy dancer thing in Rusalka; sitting at the Momus in 2000 with Tom Carlisle and Susan Mead; and getting abused and kicked around in this year's Bohème, especially by Mark Huelsmann. Anxiety ridden as I was during Turandot, I was frequently moved to tears by the power of being that close to �In questa regia��yes, even when Schnaut sang it. 

Have you had any unusual or funny experiences onstage?

Oh, my. I'll pick two of the many. In Elektra, I was rear-ended by another Super during the scene in which we beat-up slaves circle Orestes in gratitude and awe. I was accustomed to look up to see an ordinary looking guy (Monte Pederson) but, one night, there was Tom Fox who, in a long black wig, looked like the ultimate hunk a hunk o' burnin' love. He was gorgeous, and I just stopped in my tracks and stared�and got run over.

In War and Peace, one of my roles was as a gypsy girl (in a fabulous costume - I'm the middle one in the photo) at the drunken party of some of the military officers. First I had to pretend I was a pony, prancing on my knees while the bass-baritone snapped a whip over my derrière�someone in rehearsal told me �You have set women's liberation back 100 years�� then I had (got?) to lie on the floor while Philip Skinner ran his hand up and down my hip and bare leg. Nothing untoward happened, but it felt really good. (Sorry, Mrs. Skinner.)   

What was your biggest challenge?

Keeping my bare feet on the stage in Stern Grove during an Italian Girl (in the late �80s) that was performed in 90-degree weather and blazing sun. Only after I got out there with no shoes did I realize that the stage surface was blisteringly hot. I was a harem girl but I probably looked like I had St. Vitus' dance. Hopping about on all fours in the Hockney Flute (I did two productions) was a close second. It hurts me to even think about doing that now. My knees are too old.

Where were you most visible? Least?

Most: this last Bohème as the homeless woman�or so all my friends tell me. Least: probably as one of the women-in-black in Pelleas and Melisande. We wore long black dresses, long black veils and we did nothing but kneel behind a long black scrim. As I wrote at the time, the 49ers defensive line could have done those parts and no one would have known the difference.

What were your favorite and least favorite costumes?

Many favorites: the blue Dupioni silk nuns' habits in the '92 Tosca (above); the aforementioned gypsy dress in War and Peace; the fairy get-up in Rusalka; all of my Momus party dresses in all Bohèmes (I saw the '88 version on a chorus woman at the Met two years later!), especially the current one with the red wig and iridescent blue skirt. Least: it's a toss-up between the Ponnelle Rigoletto (those cruel shoes and gowns and robes that weighed as much as the main curtain at the Opera House) and the lethal mirrored headdresses in Die Frau ohne Schatten back in �89. 

And now, the big one: why do you do this?

For myriad reasons, but mostly because of two: to inhabit the music as one can only do when one is in a production, and to temporarily leave behind journalism, modern life, mortality, traffic, lying politicians and a national culture that worships �reality� television for whatever century and country and era that's onstage at the Opera House. OK, there's a third: the camaraderie of being a Super. There is no group of folks quite like us. I will Super until they padlock the stage door to keep me out.