The term's original use, from the Latin supernumerarius, meant someone paid to appear on stage in crowd scenes or in the case of opera as non-singing small parts. The word can still be found used for such in theatre and opera. It is the equivalent of "extra" in the motion picture industry. Any established opera company will have a supernumerary core of artists to enhance the opera experience. The Metropolitan Opera (Met) in New York and the Washington National Opera(WNO) are known for the high profile and seasoned supernumeraries.
Some major supernumerary personalities on stage have been U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ginsberg and Kennedy, Marlene Hall, David Brindley, Michael Walker, Emily Cohen, Eric Schultz, Felipe Lagos, Victor Yager, John Tinpe, Karyn-Siobhan Robinson, Rey Rivera, Samantha Smith, Fernando Varisco and Toni Smiley. Other long time famed supernumeraries include Patrizia DiZebba, Harry Spence, Peter Whitten, Alex Riley, Gary Nooger, and Alain Letort.
Typical supernumerary work
Supernumeraries are usually amateur character artists who train under professional direction to create a believable scene. They almost become part of the props and give a sense of credibility to scenes where crowds, court assistants, lackeys, peasants or a variety of period characters are needed. The commitment in terms of time can range from as little as one two-hour rehearsal and a dress rehearsal—but supers do have to agree to take part in a minimum number of performances—to as much as five hours a day for four or five weeks for, say, a newly staged opera.
Supernumeraries can add a very dramatic effect when they are properly used in grand opera productions.
- Paul Freireich. 'Being a Super at the Met.' The New York Times, February 26, 2007