One of the many vital backstage areas at Welsh National Opera is the costume department, where the outfits for every scene are made and fitted for each cast member. We spoke to Siân Price, Head of Costume, to get an insight into the process.
The department at WNO is quite small, with two cutters, a head tailor, one senior costume maker, four costume makers and two milliners, plus Siân. Processes such as dying, breaking down (where you ‘age’ an item) and jewellery making are done by a member of WNO’s Props team. As Head of the department, which includes Touring Wardrobe, Siân has overall responsibility for all the costumes used on a WNO production, from the making stage right through to their return and storage.
Siân liaises with the designer for each production, beginning with an initial meeting; she then chooses fabrics and purchases everything required. Freelance makers are booked, sometimes with specialist skills. She ensures the workroom team have everything they need, sending fabrics on to the freelancers. She also books in fittings with both the main cast and the Chorus, so there’s a constant running conversation with other departments to schedule these.
Organisation is paramount as three shows are usually worked on at a time. The Chorus is fitted as soon as possible – revivals for an upcoming season are usually done during the current season and often out on tour. New productions are fitted in the workroom (at our home venue, Wales Millennium Centre). As fittings have to be worked in around the Chorus schedule these can run over several weeks and can prove especially tricky if the designer is from another country.
Siân states how ‘pre Covid there was nothing like a typical day; each show throws up different challenges – which is good, as it keeps you on your toes!’ One particularly memorable occasion was for Aida in 2008 – arranging fittings for the Community Chorus. The team only met the Chorus on the Saturday they fitted them. They had linen tunics prepared in a selection of sizes and colours, the members of the Chorus came in one-by-one and got a tunic, sash and hat, which were quickly labelled and then it was on to the next. Siân thinks they saw over 50 people that day, not seeing them again until the stage rehearsals: ‘it wasn’t too bad, we only had to swap a few around’, she recollects.
During rehearsals Costume staff are on-call to make sure the designer, singer and director are happy. Then when the Company is on tour, the team finish the cover (understudy) singers’ costumes – there may be a large number, so it can take time to get them all done. Prep also begins for the following season.
Post Covid will be very different. Siân says ‘it’s going to be a huge learning experience for us all. It is all about keeping everyone safe and well. There will be no mass fittings; everything will need to be sanitised, with very strict guidelines to follow. Planning and preparation are going to be even more key. It will be a whole new way of working for everyone.’