Dressing the part

When Mark Blaquiere met Cathy Ann Fears at a party in the late ’90s, two things about her impressed him, besides the fact that he thought she was a knockout.

“I owned a beautiful house in Oak Cliff, and I had a role in ‘Die Fledermaus’ with the Dallas Opera,” Fears says.

Blaquiere is a lifelong opera fan. And he became smitten with Fears, a professional actress and elementary school arts teacher, almost instantly.

Now the two, who have been married for 10 years, have parts as supernumeraries in “Don Pasquale”, which runs through March 7 at the Dallas Opera.

A supernumerary is a non-singing role in opera. And being cast as one is no easy feat.

First of all, opera companies usually either own all the costumes for the operas they produce, or they rent costumes from other opera companies. So directors cast supernumeraries to fit costumes. If the costume for a role is a size 6, for example, they’re not going to audition anyone who is a size 16.

“Sometimes they’ll put out a casting call that says they’re seeking grizzly, weathered manly men, or something like that,” Fears says. “You’re cast on how you look. It’s all about looks.”

Fears is a size 8, so she fit the costume to play the guardian to Norina, the soprano lead in “Don Pasquale”. And Blaquiere, who has a distinctive, angular face, fit the role of the valet to Don Pasquale.

When Fears was cast in “Die Fledermaus”, which was her first supernumerary role, it was because they needed actors who looked like famous opera stars, and Fears looks like Maria Callas, one of the most famous sopranos ever.

“I got to play Maria Callas as ‘Tosca’, and I did a comic bit with Charles Nelson Riley,” she says, referring to the late American comedian.

Directors also look for actors who have good reputations as dependable workers. After all, opera producers have enough divas on their hands.

Fears, who is not a serious opera fan, has scenes with Nathan Gunn, a 39-year-old American baritone who in 2008 made People magazine’s list of “The Sexiest Men Alive”. A recording of “Billy Budd”, on which Gunn sings the title role, recently won a Grammy award. In short, he’s a huge star in the American opera world.

“Everyone kept saying, ‘Oh, you have a scene with Nathan Gunn, aren’t you nervous?’” she says. “But I didn’t know anything about him. I thought he seemed like a regular guy. No arrogance.”

For Blaquiere, who runs marathons and likes to pay for things with a wad of $2 bills, it is an unusual opportunity to rub elbows with opera stars and to sit backstage at the Winspear Opera House and listen.

“When you think about what it takes for them to create those sounds with their voices …” he says.

Fears, who graduated from Kimball High School, got her first taste of acting as a third-grader at Anson Jones Elementary School in Cockrell Hill.

“I played George Washington’s wife, and I’ll never forget how I felt,” she says.

She’s pursued roles ever since, and she even starved for her art during a 10-year stint in New York City.

The best part about working as a supernumerary, she says, is the luxury. There are costumers whose only job is to keep track of shoes, and crewmembers whose only responsibility is to move one piece of scenery.

“When you’re in a play in Dallas, you do everything,” she says. “You’re cleaning up; you’re running the light board. When you work for the opera, you are so well taken care of.”

Blaquiere and Fears have witnessed some diva behavior on the set of “Don Pasquale”, and with the way opera singers are pampered, it’s no wonder.

But from the perspective of outsiders looking in, they find it all entertaining. And, at least for the run of “Don Pasquale”, they’ve got some of the best seats in the house. n


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