Turning Japanese

The Royal Opera's production of Madama Butterfly has set a challenge for costumiers and wig-makers: to combine authenticity with practicality. Susie Rushton joins them backstage
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The Independent Culture

One probably shouldn't have such thoughts when ushered into the inner sanctum of Covent Garden, but it does strike me that what I'm looking at resembles a huge condom. It's 9.15am, and Jonathan Coad, a Royal Opera House chorus-member, sits patiently in the men's hair-and-make-up room on the first floor of the labyrinthine backstage area, while Katherine, a wig specialist, tugs a shiny latex cap over his crown. Does that hurt? "No, it's fine - no problem at all," Coad booms. "Although it can be painful to remove. It's glued all the way around, and it can feel like ripping plaster off."

One probably shouldn't have such thoughts when ushered into the inner sanctum of Covent Garden, but it does strike me that what I'm looking at resembles a huge condom. It's 9.15am, and Jonathan Coad, a Royal Opera House chorus-member, sits patiently in the men's hair-and-make-up room on the first floor of the labyrinthine backstage area, while Katherine, a wig specialist, tugs a shiny latex cap over his crown. Does that hurt? "No, it's fine - no problem at all," Coad booms. "Although it can be painful to remove. It's glued all the way around, and it can feel like ripping plaster off."

Ninety minutes before the first full-costume rehearsal of Madama Butterfly, Coad is in the early stages of a total theatrical make-over that will transform him from personable English gent into a white-faced Kabuki character: his black lips turned down at the corners in a permanent grimace, his eyes elongated with kohl, and, thanks to the "baldie" stretched over his scalp, a head now bare save for long bunches of shiny, black hair festooned in the traditional style. Any facetious thoughts are banished: he looks fearsome, and he'll look fearsome from up in the gods, too.

Madama Butterfly, which opened this week, is a revival of a production first staged in 2003. Its Kabuki-style costumes, wigs and make-up were all originally designed by the Paris-based Italian opera designer Agostino Cavalca. Now in its third incarnation, not so much as a sleeve or parasol has been altered from the first performance. "This is the concept and it's got lots of work behind it," says Cavalca, later, when I query this constancy. "This is the look I wanted to give to Butterfly. And when it's done - that's it. It's like if you do a painting. Picasso wouldn't do a new painting for a new exhibition. It might seem pretentious, but the reason that the production was successful in the first place was that it was the way it was."

While the likes of Christian Lacroix and Zandra Rhodes may regularly design opera costumes, the art of creating clothing for the stage has little in common with fashion design. For a start, clothing is only one strand of a creative whole. Cavalca doesn't just dress an operatic production but is also the architect of its hairstyles and its make-up. Other opera designers will also create sets. But his role does share some features with the couturier's: the process starts with a sketch, for instance. At the Royal Opera House, these colourful drawings - cartoonish and cheery in comparison with the slight, linear figures you might see in a drawing signed by Karl Lagerfeld - are neatly kept in a lever-arch file by senior members backstage. For each revival, these drawings will serve as essential reference tools for the dozen-strong team of hair-and-make-up artists who will transform almost 100 cast members nightly.

Maintenance of a consistent and pre-imagined image, it transpires, is the challenge that faces the backstage crew, and this unswerving loyalty to the original production must be applied, even if there are changes in cast members because of sickness or "singing problems", or, more commonly, if wigs and make-up are spoilt as performers sweat under hot lights.

Juan Leirado, who has worked in the wig workshop for 28 years, is one of the expert wig-makers who will service the delicate and expensive (between £300 and £600 apiece) latex-and-human-hair pieces that will be worn every night during Madama Butterfly's six-week run. Up in the sixth-floor attic wig workshop, his presence is heralded by a wonderful chemical fog that I can't quite identify until he leads me over to his workbench under a skylight, and then I spot it: hairspray.

"We do production after production," Leirado beams, as he shows me around the sunny room, stacked with small cardboard boxes, each containing a wig carefully wrapped in tissue paper. After a production ends, the wigs will be lovingly preserved in anticipation of a future revival.

Back downstairs in the anonymous corridors near the make-up rooms, I finally get to see some costumes up close: beautiful oyster-coloured kimonos stencilled with butterflies at the hem; their square-cut, trailing sleeves carefully tacked beneath clear cellophane to keep them clean until the real curtain call. These are some of the many traditional Japanese costumes worn by Cio-Cio-San in the production.

In 2002, when Cavalco began work on the original designs, he looked to Kabuki theatre for inspiration. "I wanted to take theatre into theatre," he says of the way he has grafted the mannered appearance of Kabuki on to the operatic stage. His costumes are not literal translations of kimonos. "If you showed a Japanese kimono-maker this," he says, gesturing at the green and pale yellow degradé gown - cut to fit Cristina Gallardo-Domas, the Italian soprano who takes the title role - "he would be horrified. But a real kimono is too restrictive. I have to design it so that when she sings and moves, it works". Are his costume designs also a direct response to Puccini's score? "Yes, absolutely. I work very closely with the musical director and I would say that the body and the singer have to go together. The director sees the scene in a certain way, and the costume I design has to go with that. It's like..." he tugs at his baseball cap as he searches for the right word, "... a fusion."

'Madama Butterfly', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000; www.royaloperahouse.org) to 2 May

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