OPERA

The Drama Backstage

Production Coordinator Manuel Gutierrez of the San Francisco Opera costume shop picking through the basement storage room of past operas.
PETER DASILVA
Production Coordinator Manuel Gutierrez of the San Francisco Opera costume shop picking through the basement storage room of past operas.
We visited SF Opera's costume shop — currently in the midst of "Tosca" fittings, "The Ring" rehearsals and one sick diva.

Forget what’s happening onstage at the San Francisco Opera. Behind the scenes, a drama is unfolding.

A major cast member in one of the upcoming shows has fallen ill — just 10 days shy of rehearsals. A replacement diva can certainly learn songs and staging of Richard Wagner’s  “The Ring” series in the short amount of time she has to get up to speed —  but the San Francisco Opera Costume Shop is scrambling.

The team of about 30 people must remake Brunhilde’s four costumes, each one customized for the fill-in performer, and complete them in time for rehearsals. The shop is already slammed — draping, sewing, fitting and tailoring hundreds of costumes for each of the opera’s upcoming shows. The recasting is an all-too-common twist, and the costume team knows how to handle it.

San Francisco Opera costume shop draper Irene Murray pinning fabric on a mannequin. PETER DASILVA

San Francisco Opera costume shop draper Irene Murray pinning fabric on a mannequin.

The SF Opera’s costume shop is a small factory working within a staggeringly complex schedule. Its stark offices are housed on the top floor of the Veteran’s Building, just across from the War Memorial Opera House. The door to the costume shop is at the end of a skylit hallway whose narrow white walls are covered in photographs of opera costumes (and stars) of years past.

Costume Director Daniele McCartan’s office is just off the hallway to the left. There’s a skylight in there, too, and dozens of boxes of fabric samples. At a communal table, “Tosca” costume designer Robert Innes Hopkins is going through the show’s costume “bible” after a day of fittings.

McCartan, nearly hidden behind the computer screen atop her desk, seems calm. But that attitude belies her workload and its intricacy. In reality, the costume shop is a little like Santa’s workshop the night before Christmas — but for 10 months of the year.

Matador jackets in the basement storage area of the San Francisco Opera costume shop. PETER DASILVA

Matador jackets in the basement storage area of the San Francisco Opera costume shop.

Costumes for all four shows of “The Ring” are just about finished and in the final stages of fittings before rehearsals. These costumes are gruff and industrial, a cross between war-torn Germany, a biker gang and Burning Man. Many of the pieces worn in “The Ring” series are splattered with metallic paint. Hundreds of costumes, including hats, shoes and fake foam muscles, are organized on metal racks in various parts of the fourth floor shop.

Once finishing touches have been completed — and those four ensembles remade for the new Brunhilde — “The Ring’s” costumes must be organized in a basement warehouse and prepped for the cross-plaza journey to the opera house backstage by Production Coordinator Manuel Gutierrez, an 18-year veteran of the opera.

Meanwhile, “Tosca’s” 140 or so costumes are in the midst of early fittings. For the first time in 35 years, the SF Opera has decided to almost completely redesign the costumes and set of this beloved opera, flying in designer Innes Hopkins from London to do so.

Each of the new “Tosca” costumes has been designed and partially constructed, but hems are unfinished, buttons have yet to be attached. At each fitting, Hopkins will determine details such as which earrings go with which dress and which cravat is to be tucked into which lapel. McCartan and her team track all of that, make sure all of the costumes are properly fit and tailored, and adjust each actor’s look (particularly their shoes).

Some of the period shoes in the basement storage are for the San Francisco Opera costume shop. PETER DASILVA

Some of the period shoes in the basement storage are for the San Francisco Opera costume shop.

Responsible for thousands of high-concept, high-quality costumes in varying stages of completion all at once, McCartan and her team plod along, task by task, spreadsheet by spreadsheet. Their organization is as meticulous as the quality of costumes that grace the stage. According to McCartan, there are three simple steps. “Here’s the season, here’s the workload,” she says. “Who’s going to do what and when are we going to do it?”

The San Francisco Opera Costume Shop keeps a massive inventory of past costumes, many which reside in the Veteran’s Building basement and some that are stored in a special warehouse just south of San Francisco. Costumes for this fall’s productions of “Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci,” “Roberto Devereux,” and “Arabella” will be rented from other companies as far afield as Prague, with some pulled from existing inventory as needed. Negotiating those rentals, fittings and adjustments is a constant process.

Each costume has a label attached listing all of the performers that wore the garment for a performance. PETER DASILVA

Each costume has a label attached listing all of the performers that wore the garment for a performance.

Down in the basement, walls are covered in rows and rows of character shoes, belts, and accessories, each organized by size and time period. Clothing is hung from racks along the ceiling to make room for even more garment racks below. Gaze upwards in the costume-packed basement and one is met with rows and rows of crinoline peeking from beneath dozens of heavy 19thcentury-era hoop skirts. For fans of period fashion, the view is downright heavenly.

Costumes worn for particularly important shows or by particularly important singers are preserved for posterity. Gutierrez can list the highlights of his stored treasures, rattling off names of singers, shows and dresses from decades ago.

“I’m totally an opera nerd,” he says.

San Francisco Opera costume shop master tailor Sally Thomas laying out a pattern. PETER DASILVA

San Francisco Opera costume shop master tailor Sally Thomas laying out a pattern.

Even as multiple show responsibilities swirl around them, McCartan and her team take on more. The costume shop regularly contributes work to other opera companies around the country that don’t have the scale and scope that San Francisco’s opera does. For instance, McCartan and her team are contributing about a dozen costumes to a production at the Santa Fe Opera.

How a half-finished costume from “Tosca” and a pair of shoes from “Arabella” don’t end up in someone’s dressing room on a performance night of “The Ring” is a testament to the shop’s cool, organized vibe.

“Somehow it happens,” McCartan deadpans. “I’m not even really sure how, to tell you the truth.”

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