In the first of this series of articles, L.O.S.A. Member Hoss Brock sat down with Maestro Michael Christie, and explored with him a conductor’s eye view of what happens when a member of the cast gets sick. In this, the second article of that series, we learn more about what happens when the costume department gets that same call from Lyric Opera of Chicago Costume Director Maureen Reilly.
HB: Can you describe the responsibilities of the wardrobe department specifically relating to understudies?
MR: Over the years the company policies have changed; more of our doing than anything else. We make sure that we fit every understudy. If the costume is really involved and complex, we try and fit them into the principle artist’s clothes, because it’s very costly to make a copy. And if they don’t fit then we go into storage and see if we can find something that we can pass off as being part of the production. And if that’s not possible, we do have a budget to make extra pieces to fit. But again, the first thing is to see if they’ll fit into what we have, and if they do we take notes on what sort of alterations we have to do in the event that the understudy goes on. In the case of a show that we already own (Traviata is a good example), Albina [Shagimuratova] had different clothes made for her when she sang the role in Houston, and the original clothes then were fair game for our understudy. So when Emily [Birsan] came for a fitting we fit her in the original costumes, so for us that was a relief! In the event Violetta wouldn’t go on, we would have all the pieces for our understudy.
HB: So there could be duplicate costumes for the understudies, or you would plan to alter the main costume if the understudy had to go on?
HB: For a performance, how much notice do you usually get that an understudy is going to go on?
MR: I believe the policy downstairs is that they do a “good morning, how are you?” call on the day of the performance, somewhere around noon. Usually the singer says “I’m fine”. If they have a cold or something like that, they’ll usually say “I’m going to call you back soon and let you know.” Usually a principal artist who is ill will cancel and give us a couple of hours; maybe say three o’clock. Obviously there’s no deadline; if they decide at six o’clock they can’t go on because they just got a stomach flu, we have to deal with it.
HB: Let’s say you get very short notice.
MR: We did Onegin a couple years ago, and Mariusz Kwiecień was not feeling well and couldn’t decide if he was going to sing or not. Taka [Takaoki Onishi] from the Opera Center was his understudy, so we had… I don’t know… I think we had maybe a shirt for him and nothing else because they wore the same size. So this is saying the artist’s dressing room is room 110 and we have the understudy in room 106 and we’re taking clothes off of the principal artist and putting them on the understudy!
HB: But what if you needed to alter the costume?
MR: Several years back we did Parsifal, and Mr [Gösta] Winbergh got sick at the top of the show. He sang the first entrance and then he was out. He was about five foot eleven and the gentleman that took over for him was six foot four! And we had this suit of armor that was worn at the end of the show, so between the wardrobe department and the armor department we had to get leather strips and make rivets and extensions onto this outfit: this sort of leather suit of armor, so that it could fit this really tall man. That was definitely an E. R. situation.
HB: So you are able to drastically alter a costume on a time crunch?
MR: Well there’s a difference between, you know, how it would look if we were really fitting them. We’ll take tucks or we’ll find a piece of fabric and wedge it in if we have to; whatever has to be done to get the clothes on stage. And it depends on how many people are working on it. Say it was a difference of someone being small and then having to make the costume very big. You’ll have one person taking the costume apart, another person prepping the panels that are going to go into the space. And then that person who made the panels might sew it all back together and then they’ll work together as a team to put all the fasteners back on; any of the hand sewing that’s happening. And so they can do that in, I would say… half an hour… twenty minutes… like an intermission if they had to. Now if they had ten minutes they might even have to pin something. And that’s the thing: In theater there is no right answer – there’s only the best answer.
HB: Are there specific challenges for you and your staff if an artist is in the cast and is also covering another role?
MR: Yeah, that’s a domino effect! Especially if the costumes are specific. You know, person B goes into A. C goes into B. D goes into C, and so on and so on and so on! Sometimes with the men, if everyone’s in a tail suit, it’s a little bit easier because the person that’s covering the principal role may just need to add an order, or sash, or a different tie, and they can wear their own clothes.
HB: We’ve touched on the domino effect and specifically Traviata. Walk me thorough your day when Giorgio Berrugi was out and we had three people bumped up in their role.
MR: Well you know, actually, because we were prepared, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Mario [Rojas] had been already fit in costumes, so he had a set of clothes to wear, so that was fairly easy. And then Eric Ferring went into Mario’s as Gastone. And then we had you go into… Giuseppe… and did you have a set?
HB: I did.
MR: That’s what I thought, because we felt like “Oh yeah, we can do this.” so it was pretty easy. Now. If it Weren’t, we would have been changing… doing alterations on all the clothes.
HB: But even with advance preparation, there’s still a lot that goes on behind the scenes before the show?
MR: We make sure that we have everything prepped. We have racks, and if an understudy has their own pieces, all of their stuff is on the rack saying what character they’re going to portray. And again, there are notes with all of the information of what we have to do if we have to do a changeover of a costume. Usually what will happen is I’ll get an email from the rehearsal department, and I’ll text the Union Steward of the dressers, the Crew Head, and whichever dressers are involved, just so they know that’s what’s happening. We’ve really started doing that in the past year or two to make things better for all of the performers. I had a situation last year during Cosi where somebody was out and we had quick changes to set up. My dressers had brought the clothes downstairs for the quick change, but that person was out and the other chorus member that was going to go in for them hadn’t been fit in the clothes yet because we just hadn’t gotten that far in the whole process. So they came up stairs at half hour; we fit them in 2 costumes; we made the minor alterations we needed to make so that person can go on stage, and then that first costume was brought down to the stage for the quick change. We’re trying to fix that so that we don’t have panic situations like that. It’s why our goal is to fit everyone regardless of whether they are a super, a chorister, a principle artist, ballet. Understudies have a fitting so that we have no issues and we know what we’ll have to do.
HB: It sounds like there have been some near misses throughout the years. Let’s wrap up with your best and worst understudy experiences.
MR: Well actually one of the best scenarios was Traviata. Every person that was out, we had been prepared, and Emily had her own clothes. So it was a lot less stressful than it could have been.
One of the things I remember most is we were doing Ariadne. We’re towards the end of the opera, and they had already sent the understudies home. One of the three ladies came off and said “I can’t sing I don’t know what happened!” So they were calling the understudy, who is on the subway! And she came back, and she wound up putting on a choir robe. The principle went out on stage and motioned all the rest of her blocking and the understudy stood in the wings with the black robe on and sang.