Costume Society Ambassadors, News  |  April 16, 2014

Welsh National Opera: A Makers Tale

I have been lucky enough to have been working as a Costume Maker for the Welsh National Opera since I graduated in 2012. I thought I would share some of my experiences with you, in order to give you an insight into how the opera's making wardrobe department works.

In the wardrobe department we work on a mixture of revivals and new productions, this means that some days we are fitting, altering and checking costumes from existing productions; and on other days we are creating costumes from scratch. Some of the productions in the opera's repertoire are over 40 years old or have been hired from other opera companies from around the world. Some shows even use original garments, some from as far back as the 19th century; others have recreated period garments so as to preserve the original whilst keeping its style. I find it exciting to see how some of the costumes were made all those years ago and through minor alterations and repairs they are still going strong. I hope that the costumes I have made whilst here will still be being used for as long.

When a new production is being made the pattern cutters work closely with the head of wardrobe and the designers so as to produce costumes that are both wearable and create the desired image. At times the designer may have a definite idea of what each singer should wear, and may have designed things with each individual in mind; other times the designer has a selection of designs that the head of wardrobe and cutters can then allocate to the most suitable singers. This helps to keep the performers happy and best shows off the designer's, cutter's and maker's hard work.

As a maker I have found that the important part of creating costumes for the opera is that they have to be built to last and be able to be easily altered in the future, especially as a different singer may be wearing the costume the next time the show is put on stage. This means that where possible we tend to keep on generous seam allowances, create garments with centre back, front, or side seams, and finish off the fronts and backs separately so that they can be quickly altered along the side seams. Like in other forms of live theatre, I have learnt from the opera that these 'tricks of the trade' can help make a costume more comfortable to wear. Other 'tricks' include adding in stretch panels in the sides of corsets and bodices to allow for breathing room, using buttons and button elastics to keep skirts and bodices from moving away from each other, and to add multiple bars on waistbands to allow for changes in size whilst out on tour or for future performers. My favourite 'trick' I have seen is when strong magnets have been sewn into the garments to act as back up fastenings during quick changes, you just have to be careful that they don't get stuck to your sewing machine!

I have learnt so much from my time at the opera and I feel I am now a much better, and more confident costume maker, especially as I now know that if a costume or alteration is needed with last minute notice I can cope with the pressure and get the job done. As they say “the show must go on!” I hope that I will be able to take the skills I've learnt and my fond memories with me into my future workplaces.

Further information can be found on Welsh National Opera's website including tour dates, cast and crew interviews, photo galleries, backstage insights, and videos for previous,current and upcoming productions: http://www.wno.org.uk/explore 

Kate Lyons, Costume Society Ambassador 2014

  • Ladies Chorus costume design by Madeleine Boyd, for The Tudors Season 2013 Image Credit: Welsh National Opera
  • Rebecca Affonwy-Jones as Flora in La Traviata 2014, designed by Tanya McCallin Photo credit: Wales Online Newspaper
  • Lohengrin 2013, designed by Antony McDonald Photo credit: Bill Cooper.
  • Maria Stuarda 2013, designed by Madeleine Boyd Photo credit: Robert Workman.
  • Welsh National Opera