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The director and conductor of “Faust,” opening at the San Diego Opera this Saturday, decided in the production process to make some cuts and smoosh some acts together — so people can enjoy the show but not get antsy.
But that decision left Missy West, costume director, with a puzzle.
How exactly would she get Ailyn Perez, singing the role of Marguerite, out of a fancy dress, bodice and lace-up boots and into a nightgown?
In 30 seconds?
No Velcro is involved. Instead, the costume integrates more secure (and subtle) shortcuts.
The woman helping Perez get out of the dress will use a technique called “speed lacing,” which sounds a little like it should be an Olympic sport. The bodice’s laces are set up so they can be tugged open and the whole thing comes off with a whoosh. West mimed the rapid moves, arms flying, and it looked like a workout.
There are a few other sleights of hand. The petticoat, once a separate item, got sewn into the dress, so both can come off together. The boots may look stiff and antiquated, but actually the elastic laces let them come right off.
For a final touch, Perez will be wearing her nightgown under the dress, so she can fly back on stage the next moment.
Last time West checked, the change was down to 28 seconds.
I took a walk through the wardrobe department with West as she described what it takes to put together an opera from her perspective. Here’s the process in a nutshell: Take a few thousand items that add up to a few hundred costumes, and match them up with each singer in each act, tag every item to make sure nothing gets lost.
And make extra-sure the singers are comfortable.
“If you’re thinking about how your shoes don’t fit, I haven’t done my job,” she said. “If you’re worried about how you look, I haven’t done my job.”
Costumes arrive months before an opera, and the staffers take inventory. Four or so weeks before the show opens, cast members come in for fittings. That is how the wardrobe staff determine what changes need to be made so costumes are comfortable. Every fitting involves a note taker, who marks alteration instructions and writes how the costume will be used on stage. Another worker called a draper makes marks to tell the seamstresses what ajustments to make. Someone also takes a picture of the ensemble — from petticoat to pearl earrings. The photo will end up in the dressing room so there’s no confusion about the final look.
Every piece gets tagged so no one is wondering where someone’s bonnet is or whose breeches those are. Next, the pieces get altered and, a week before curtain, racks of costumes start being rolled into the dressing room area of Civic Theatre — first the less important roles (which typically have simpler outfits) and then the principals. Each rack or costume gets positioned in dressing room, and every singer and supernumerary (the silent acting roles) gets a bag with accessories.
By Tuesday, most of the costumes had moved to the dressing rooms, where they were laid out for the first dress rehearsal Monday.
In the days before the dress rehearsals, it was time for final adjustments. Fix this button, fluff those ruffles, steam those shirts. And then, cue the sighs.
“By the time we finish the first dress rehearsal, we’re golden,” West said. Her staff will still be on hand, though, to dress everyone, do laundry and prepare the clothes on performance days. And they don’t get a real break just yet, with costume alterations for the next opera, “Carmen,” now underway.
Here are some more photographs of the work that goes into costumes:
Next up: A sudden cast change reminds the opera company: You never know what will happen.
Roxana Popescu is a San Diego arts writer. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.