Fine birds make fine feathers

900 costumes for “Candide” at Berlin’s Komische Oper

Since Leonard Bernstein’s comic operetta “Candide” celebrated its Berlin premiere at the Komische Oper in November 2018, it has been stunning audiences with its reduced stage set and quick-fire costume changes.

Based on Voltaire’s famous satirical novel, the musical marks a tour de force – especially by the costume department! 

All kinds of glittery gladrags are hanging in front of a partition screen; bulky breeches are squeezed up against drooping tights, trousers are lying across folding chairs, jackets draped over seatbacks and worn-down shoes awaiting their service on the floor. So far, all is quiet, but the air is electric with anticipation: In a short time, the musical based on the 1759 satirical novel “Candide: or, All for the Best” by French philosopher Voltaire will embark on a breathtaking romp, condensed into twelve chapters, through the storms and styles of history. 

To mark the 100th anniversary of composer Leonard Bernstein’s birth, artistic director Barrie Kosky is staging the piece – first premiered at the Martin Beck Theatre in New York – as a wild road movie and snappily sardonic lesson in philosophy. It starts with a bang: Our hero, Candide, turns out to be not so noble after all and is evicted from his home when his love for the Baroness Cunigunde is revealed. Guileless and carefree, he sets off on a journey around the world, carried by the credo of his tutor Pangloss: All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But on his travels through Bulgaria and Lisbon, Paraguay, El Dorado and Venice, Candide encounters untold cruelty: war, prostitution, human trafficking, the Spanish inquisition, rape, exploitation, earthquake and murder.               

Kosky has described the piece, which he presents as a cornucopia of racy, rousing, dance, show and light opera numbers, as “existential vaudeville” and “musical schizophrenia”.

Almost 900 costumes – and constant changes

The madness on stage is paralleled by the craziness behind the scenes. Backstage, the piece whips up a costume frenzy beyond compare. It is skillfully navigated by costume designer Klaus Bruns and the costume department staff in the workshops, dressing rooms and wings, and the dressers, assistants and make-up artists. The rapid succession of solo appearances, dance numbers featuring showgirls and boys leaping across the stage (choreography by Otto Pichler), and chorus appearances with incisive musical moments requires many, fast-as-lightning changes.

The concept from the start was to place the aesthetic focus on the costumes and to have a reduced stage set (by Rebacca Ringst) consisting mainly of movable set pieces and light. “It was clear beforehand that it would be a major job for us,” says Katrin Kath, director of the costume department. The designs were ready half a year in advance, on schedule. And it came as no surprise when many new ideas were developed during the six weeks’ rehearsals. This was when the tide really turned: “We stopped talking about art and thought all the more about amounts,” says Bruns. “Everyone started worrying about the masses [of costumes] that needed to be seen to!” The figures were overwhelming – just the five different chorus appearances added up to 150 costumes.       

The rapid changes were planned beforehand – as far as possible. But the set pieces also needed to be pushed in and out quickly and backstage people were constantly getting in each other’s way. Many final touches were not completed until the last days of rehearsals – especially for the dressers. These technical demands, this alternating between periods of floating and periods of intensive activity is always an element of theatre life. “Ideally it would all go off like in a film.” But there are limits.

Working with almost 900 costumes took its toll on everyone involved, but especially on the costume department and the dressers. Incredible levels of energy and effort are required to ensure the quick succession of scenes – from romantic rapture to the depths of hell – runs smoothly. During this two-hour performance (plus one interval), the characters range from Bulgarian soldiers to sombrero-swinging South Americans and harlequin-like Venetians celebrating Carnival, to name just a few.               

Most elaborate costume piece ever

Before the performance, then, everything is lying ready and waiting in its place, “to make it quick and easy to dress,” says Detlef Vogel, the wardrobe master on the evening shift. The chairs are marked by name, “so that everyone knows where to go and doesn’t put on someone else’s costume. In terms of quantity, we have never had such an elaborate costume piece. It’s certainly a challenge!” Vogel is speaking from experience; he has been doing this for 43 years. 26 dressers are working on the current production, for which extra staff were hired.

Each staff member deals with between ten and twelve costumes. “Usually the average is between two and three,” says Kath. The male chorus alone appears as soldiers, media people, refugees, slaves in a sugar factory, mariachis in El Dorado and Pierrots in Venice. There are two dressers for each chorus wardrobe. “But the twelve dancers have it the hardest; they are constantly changing,” says wardrobe master Vogel. The female dancers wear rococo costumes, then change to soldiers, to wounded veterans, and back to rococo; the men change again into drummers and then everyone changes into refugee costumes. The dancers need to know exactly what they need to change into and where. It is all balanced out on the left side of the stage so that the dressers are always going back and forth. “We need four dressers to every six dancers to manage that.”

Lots of zips

All the costumes are prepared for fast changes. The waists on the bodices, for example, have handy zips, which is unusual as they need to fit like a second skin. “You couldn’t fasten eight hooks in that short time. Or this piece here is made to pull on rather than button up,” says Detlef Vogel, showing us a jacket, “otherwise you couldn’t swing it. The costume needs to stay in place, and you have to get it on really fast, that’s why it fastens the wrong way round, from top to bottom, because it’s easier to handle that way,” he explains. For other scenes, performers wear several costumes in layers – the army costume under the wounded veteran costume, for example, so that they need only take off the veteran and put on shoes and a mask to complete the soldier. 

The giant full-bottomed wig for Voltaire’s opening appearance is ready and waiting on a stand. It was made of artificial hair by two make-up artists who laid the hair in arm-thick curls and sprayed them in place to ensure a vividly sculptural appearance from a distance. A gallows-cart is parked next to it: Dr Pangloss will be hanged on this during the performance, then it will be wheeled off stage while the performer dashes into the dressing room and up the stairs to reappear as Voltaire, the mighty wig strapped on his shoulders. The performer playing the double role of Voltaire/Pangloss switches between the two by putting on and taking off the wig. But if that weren’t enough, the same performer also changes into a wounded veteran on two occasions.

A triple team

Crucially, the wardrobe masters and backstage staff preparing the costumes have a lot of experience to draw on. This costume frenzy can only be mastered by a skilled combination of planning, improvising and individual effort. Sometimes the challenge seemed insurmountable, as Kath recalls: “The dressers were quite despairing because they couldn’t rearrange things fast enough before the next change needed to happen, with a chorus of 60 people needing constant changes”. 

The team was almost doubled for the pre-production. The whole department worked on it while others picked up the slack. The number of dressers was tripled – temporary workers were hired to help the permanent staff and are still helping. “Those were long hard days,” Kath now laughs. The logistics were the main challenge, with every department needing its space – with clothes rails, props, and seats. While the reduced stage set also has a technical sophistication not to be sniffed at, most of the budget went on the costumes. As Kath says, “the costumes exceeded our wildest dreams.”


BTR Ausgabe 3 2019
Rubrik: English texts, Seite 140
von Irmgard Berner