Company for the Mad Hatter: The Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House is one of those miraculous artistic nests that accommodates for the birth, development, transformation and ultimate flourishing of pieces of spellbinding genius. Rather like a chrysalis, the building itself wraps around all who enter, blocking out the outside world with its stresses, strains, pains and hassle and focusing the spirit into the warm artistic currents within. Having visited the Opera House for the first time on 16th March, I was spellbound to discover that the building houses not just the stage and auditorium, but has floors that contain dance studios, vast soundproofed rooms for the manufacture of set and studios set aside for the creation of hundreds of costumes.

The costumes are created upstairs in work rooms on the high levels in the Royal Opera House. Walking into the theatre at ground level, you leave behind the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden to enter the stillness within. The solid walls block out the sound of busy London. The current building is the third regeneration of this theatre, with two previous buildings having burnt down in 1808 and 1857. A phoenix out of the flames, the foyer from 1858 welcomes you with the shaded grandeur of a historical theatre. Continuing through into the bright natural light and vast elegance of the iron and glass floral hall, then up a modern escalator and through a small bar area, you will find yourself bursting out into an open terrace that looks down onto Covent Garden. A fresh space, looking out over the rooftops of such a busy shopping site filled with tourists and locals alike. Looking out over it all from a space of hush and stillness. A little piece of beautiful detachment. And look now through the walls of glass behind you and see there a wondrous space: The sewing rooms where the costumes for productions at the Royal Opera House are created.

There are four seamstresses in that room working away quietly, each with a sewing machine and a large table full of half-finished costumes, snips of fabric, thread and various embellishments. Beyond that room, there is a normal looking corridor. A corridor you would find in any large London building. Completely normal looking, aside from the eight or so wide clothes rails that are gathered agaist the wall like a crowd of quiet butlers. These rails are packed with rolls of fabric (some labelled ‘Alice in Wonderland’) and finished costumes. The garments for characters come into being here. The character is beginning to become a physical being.

Enter a silver lift large enough for a small troupe of dancers in full tutus, and you will emerge in another corridor with a dance studio opposite complete with sprung floors and walls of mirror. Dancers kip on the sofas in an ajoining room in a precious break from rehearsals. A woman is taking a call, looking into the empty dance studio, telling the caller that many autographs will need to be signed.

And now up another lift and along a straight stretch of corridor lined with signed posters and sketches from designers – and let us look through a small square picture-frame window, down into an area with ceilings as high as a warehouses’, where set is being created. A large lift to the right is of such a size as to accommodate a lorry so that set can be brought in from off-site down into this area to be assembled. And to the left is an enormous metal door as big as if it is to hold back elephants. It is as if we have followed the ‘Drink Me’ instrutions and shrunk into a fantasy world of morphed scale, stunning colour and enchanting detail.

It is this nest-like nature of the Royal Opera House, the nurturing atmosphere and enchantment that is surely the value of such an establishment, especially in our modern world that is bigger than it has ever been before with modern technology making us aware of issues worldwide. The arms of a great venue can embrace us for a night, and truely great theatre has the ability to block out the fast moving lights and traffic of the world, to take us on a path that is all the more gentle, all the more beautiful, all the more exciting and inspiring.

And what part does costume have to play in this desire to decend into a rabbit hole to find liberation in a fantasy world? I refer you to the current display in the foyer of the Royal Opera House that shows costumes that recall the dancing career of Monica Mason (the current director of the Royal Opera House). The costumes displayed give but a suggestion of the fantasy world that is exhibited on stage, but in the cold light of day we can view them with ever more analytical eyes. The few dresses display a vast array of character, from the untailored and highly adorned dresses of the 1920s, to tutus with a fantasy theme complete with foliage and flowers. Costumes transform a person into another character, into an animal, an element, an emotion, a force.

See my sketches here of a few of the costumes on display. When it comes to ballet, the costumer has the chance to explore silhoette and detail, with the layered tulle of the tutus creating structure and the corset tops acting as a ready canvas.

A world all its own has been created. An artist friend of mine and I have recently been questioning ‘what is the point of art?’ The answer, I believe, is this fantasy, this escape, this remedy and therapy, and detachment from the world that also provides a didactic interpretation of our lives that cannot be achieved with such impact in mere factual explanation. This detached fantasy world that theatre can create blocks out the strife of the world for a night. Enter, and let yourself be at peace.