LONDON — On a recent spring morning, the Royal Opera House’s revival workroom, which is part of the costume department, was a hive of activity. Amedine Bello, one of the revival workroom technicians, was hand-sewing gold thread onto a burgundy and pink chorus costume for the opera “Faust,” opening this week, because part of it had worn away.
Checking her meticulous notes that list the fittings and alterations that are needed, Ms. Bello explained that she had written that the piece, made from fragile Indian silk, would also need new binding. Dotted across other parts of the workshop were 14 or so of her co-workers, all of them women, fixing frayed hemlines, adding sequins to bodices, and ironing and steaming pieces once they had been mended and were ready to be checked by a supervisor.
Fay Fullerton oversees the costume department at the Royal Opera House, which usually starts work about 18 months before a production’s debut.
They had seven days at most to get all the costumes for the chorus, principals, actors, dancers and children fitted and ready before dress rehearsals. Velvet brocade jackets, flouncy chemises and monks’ robes with rope belts also were lined up on a rack outside the workshop for last-minute fixes for the revival of the ballet “Romeo and Juliet,” whose dress rehearsal was that day.
“So ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is on stage right now, the first time they are all in costume, so we will be dealing with that later today, going down to take any notes from stage with any running problems,” said Elizabeth King, the head of the revival workroom. “We are also fitting ‘Andrea Chénier’ and ‘Billy Budd’ and still fitting a little bit of ‘Faust.’ So there are usually four productions in different stages that we are working on at the same time.”
The revival department devotes its time to ballet and opera productions that have been performed before, like the Nicholas Georgiadis-designed “Romeo and Juliet,” for which some of the original costumes from 1965 are still being used. The entire costume department, which works on more than 5,000 pieces each season, has 110 full-time staff members and up to 80 freelancers, spread out across almost all floors of the opera house in Covent Garden, from the stock room, pattern room, and the men’s and ladies’ workroom (which focus on new production designs) to the dye room, wig room, shoe room, hats, jewelry and makeup.
A sewing station in the costume department. Each season, the department works on more than 5,000 pieces.CreditAndrew Urwin for The New York Times
During the current season, the Royal Opera House will present 21 opera and 17 ballet productions on the main stage and six operas and 10 ballets in the Linbury Theater, including some from visiting companies, so the many hands of the costume department are rarely idle.
For a new production, the planning team can be booked up to five years in advance. The costume department, overseen by Fay Fullerton, usually starts work about 18 months before the debut, when the designer and director or choreographer have a good outline of the look and concepts for the costumes, sets and props. “There is never like ‘Oh, it is not possible,’” said Ms. Fullerton, who has worked for the opera house since 1977. “It’s more like ‘O.K., we have never done anything like this before, and now we have to think how we are going to do that.’ You can always find a way.”
After an initial meeting, a supervisor is assigned from the costume department who, along with the designer of the production, formulates a “bible,” a thick black binder stuffed with all the elements for the show, including fabric swatches, bits of costume jewelry, notes, measurements, sketches, and the names of the singers and dancers in each role.
The bibles served not only as the main reference point for productions that are newly being mounted for the season, including Richard Jones’s take on the opera “Katya Kabanova” that had its debut in February. Later, they serve as guides for revivals of those operas and ballets. (On very big productions, they start designing and sewing the costumes about nine months in advance, though multiple-act works such as “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty” take about a year.)
Sketches of costume designs from a “bible”: a thick black binder stuffed with all the elements for a show, including fabric swatches, bits of costume jewelry, notes, measurements, sketches, and the names of the singers and dancers in each role. “They are the thing you live off with a production, and there are some beautiful ones,” said Lorna Robinson, the costume department’s head of workrooms and storage, turning the pages of the “Frankenstein” binder, which featured stunning hand painted drawings by the Scottish designer John MacFarlane. “They are just Rembrandts to me.”
Not all of the costumes can be made in house because of time, staffing and budgets; some pieces come from online sites or specialty shops, or freelancers are hired to make pieces elsewhere. If a designer has a certain print or pattern in mind but it cannot be found, or if there is a revival and the costume needs to be fixed but the pattern is no longer available, the department has a printer that re-creates a pattern on fabric and creates effects like embroidery.
Costume departments of major ballet and opera houses all over the world are often in touch with one another, sharing tips and techniques, in large part because so many co-productions are staged. “We all ping each other and say, ‘Have you heard of this?’ or ‘Is there anything new that you developed on this fabric or this fastening or this boning,’” Ms. Fullerton said. “Everything is moving in the costume world, almost as quickly as mobile phones.”
A version of this article appears in print on in The International New York Times
All images courtesy New York Times: 1st) Photo of costume from Romeo and Juliet; 2nd) Fay Fullerton