Singing Librarian flashback: Dido and Aeneas – costume dramas

I think it’s about time for another flashback.  Another long one, I’m afraid.  Summer 2003, The Gulbenkian Theatre, Canterbury.  Dido and Aeneas, performed in a double bill with The Ephesian Matron.

There are many things I could tell you about this production, but the thing that sticks most clearly in my mind is costume, and I know I shall never forget the June evening when we had our first fully-costumed run-through of the show.  Nor will anyone else present.  It was one of those evenings.

For those readers who don’t know, Dido and Aeneas is the earliest extant English opera, and is about Virgil’s doomed mythical lovers.  I was in the chorus, and this was the most chorus-heavy show I’ve ever been involved with.  It’s a one-act opera, but a lot is squeezed into that one act including one of the most exquisite arias you could possibly imagine, a coven of witches, a storm and a visit from the Grim Reaper.  The chorus is almost continuously on stage, and appears as courtiers, witches and sailors.  This required four different costumes and five changes of costume (two of them reappeared later), all within about an hour.  With a production concept that set the opera in the 1980s, we were faced with an array of suits, trenchcoats, jumpers and (for the women) ball gowns.

It had been realised very early that with the best will in the world, we were never going to be able to make it to the dressing rooms for these costume changes – some of the changes were so quick that we might not even have had time to reach the doors, turn round and come back again to make our next entrance.  So several long rails were placed in the Gulbenkian’s one (thankfully very large) wing. Each of us had a section of rail, separated from each other by plastic milk bottles, and there was no room for modesty. Crammed in tightly between the rails, we were to be in intimate proximity to one another but even if anyone had decided they wanted to do a spot of ogling, there wouldn’t have been time.  A blue worklight gave the wing an eerie glow.  My own list of clothing was as follows:

  • Opening Scene.  Courtier.  Black suit, white shirt, black bow tie, black shoes. Prop: bird mask (it was at a masked ball).
  • Second Scene. Witch/Reporter.  Red striped shirt, pin-striped brown suit, brown trenchcoat, shades, black shoes. Prop: reporter’s notebook.
  • Third Scene.  Courtier at a hunt.  Blue jeans, brown jumper, cloth cap, outdoor shoes.  Props: gun and dead pheasant.
  • Fourth Scene.  Sailor, caught in an embarrassing situation.  No shoes, one sock, blue jeans.  In hands: one sock, one blue jumper.  Jeans: being pulled up as I came into view.
  • Fifth scene. Witch/reporter.  As before.
  • Final scene.  Courtier.  As first scene, but no bird mask.  Prop: a red rose.

Now, if for some reason you happen to have a recording of the opera, pop it on and listen to the dances between scenes.  In almost all cases, these were our costume change opportunities (though one was longer, while the Spirit warbled to Aeneas).  Not very long, are they?  Can you predict the results of our costume rehearsal?

The first attempted change was a complete shambles. The music had finished, and we were supposed to be in place, but not one of us was anywhere near ready, having had to change pretty much every item of clothing.  Eventually, we were all called on to stage to see how far we’d got, a note was made, we did the rest of the change and carried on, in the hope that the rest of the changes would be simple.  So as the second scene moved into the third, the actress playing Belinda was happy to sing her little ditty about the hills and vales, but was all alone as she did so.  The courtiers were not ready, still struggling out of their ‘evil media’ costumes (the witches had been re-conceived as meddling tabloid journalists) with nary a cloth cap, fishing pole or sandwich platter in sight.  Gamely, the rehearsal limped onwards, with it becoming increasingly obvious that this was just not going to work.  Some of the dance music was repeated, with some non-singing actors going through some ‘business’ to cover the change, but in some cases it still was not enough.

A state of emergency was declared.

Much to the dismay of the wardrobe mistress, we each had to go through our costumes and work out what was and was not possible, handing the impossible items back to her, items which she had spent weeks searching for in charity shops and costume stores throughout the area.  Out went shirts, blouses, suits, skirts and hats, and in came cunning cheats to make things run more smoothly.  The media costumes disappeared almost entirely.  We were all kitted out with long trenchcoats for this scene, so a universal decision was made.  We would each get as far as we could into the costume after the media costume, and throw the trenchcoat over at the last minute, tying it tightly.  Bits of finery were mixed with bits of country gear, and some people could have been getting ready to go flashing at strangers in the nearest park.  As long as we could maintain the illusion that we were appropriately attired, all was well.  The lighting was quite dim for the witchy bits, anyway…

Costumes were worn in implausible layers and in one scene where half a dozen of the guys exited long after the female chorus, we had a line of girls waiting for us with the necessary bits of costume and props, desperately helping us into and out of the relevant items in what seemed like two and a half seconds. In the sailor scene, I was supposed to be pulling my jeans up over my boxer shorts as I entered, but I was desperately hoping that the audience wouldn’t spot that my underwear was actually my suit trousers, worn under my jeans and with a minimum amount showing!  Due to the lack of socks in that scene (I managed to get my jumper on, but had a little comic moment saluting with sock in hand) and the lack of time for changing, I ended up cutting the toes off another black sock and wearing it above the ankle, pulling it down a fraction of a second before pulling on my shoe in the wing.  It was uncomfortable wearing a sock that ran only from ankle to heel, but every second that could be shaved off the changes was vital.

The choreography in the wings was probably more complex than that seen on the stage and had to be even slicker.  The order in which each person moved to the costume rails could be vital, and props were handled with military precision.  Benches, crates, stuffed game, masks and roses had their own ballet to perform, and it all had to be ‘just so’.  This was discovered to our cost in the first actual performance, when a crate was put down in the wrong place, interrupting a chorus member’s exit for a second or so, then forcing them to take a different route to the costume rail.  Those two or three seconds lost meant that he didn’t make it into position behind a gauze in time to stand in silence waiting to form a heavenly chorus, and had to make his final entrance from a strange and peculiar place.  Speaking of the gauze, that was a particularly odd place.  We had to be in position ready to sing several minutes before we actually did, and despite being on stage were invisible to the audience (I love gauzes, simple theatrical magic!).  Movements had to be kept small, but it was nonetheless very busy as bow ties were adjusted, hair tidied, shoes laced and roses handed out in slow motion.

The hard work was worth it, though.  Several people who attended said that they didn’t know how we’d done it – it seemed as though the chorus would walk off, turn around and walk back on in a different set of costumes, with no fuss or bother.  Part of this was no doubt due to the bizarre extra rehearsal which I know many of us carried out, doing endless costume change practice at home.  In my case, this meant hanging clothes with the approximate properties of my costumes on the shower rail in the bathroom, choosing a spot elsewhere in my flat to be ‘the stage’ and sticking on the CD of the opera.  There would then follow frantic dashes to the bathroom and changes of clothes until I could manage a frantic dash back to ‘the stage’ with a couple of seconds to spare.  Many other chorus members did something similar, as we were all far more worried about the costumes than the music, acting or choreography.

At the time, it was unbelievably stressful.  The oddest worries kept bubbling away: did I put the bow tie back in the jacket pocket?  Did I hang the shirt up the right way round?  Is it obvious which pair of shoes are mine?  All the time knowing that if the answer was ‘no’, I’d probably have to sing the next scene from the wings and hope that others could cover for my physical absence if necessary.  Now, of course, it makes me chuckle.  We must have made a very bizarre sight, we merry chorus members changing at the speed of light.  And since then, I have never been remotely troubled by any so-called quick change a show has thrown my way.  You call that a quick change?  Why, when I were a young man…

    • Lilian
    • September 20th, 2006

    This one made me laugh (quietly, as was in the office (actually I am at this precise moment)). For some reason, the big question in my mind is ‘who thought of using plastic milk bottles?’ We did D&A once with the choral society at home, but just as a choral piece rather than the full-blown opera, so no costumes (except the obligatory white shirt and black skirt) were required. Having read this, I’m rather relieved! (If it’s possible to be relieved in hindsight?) This might possibly have been the time that I fell off the back of the stage on my chair though! (in the ‘dress’ rehearsal, luckily!).

  1. What WAS the director THINKING?

    Brilliant post.

    I love Dido and Aeneas – I have it on CD. Now every time I listen to it I will be seeing chaps hopping on and off stage trying to get their trousers up. Oy vey.

  2. Well, we had been taking ” a boozy short leave of our nymphs on the shore” at the time, you see… That was the only time when bits of costume were being adjusted in view of the audience. It did make a sort of sense, and provided a comic interlude in all the doom and gloom. I assure you that although legs and chests may have been on display, there were no dangly bits in evidence!

    To be honest, I think D&A in the 1980s was the least successful rethinking (although audiences enjoyed it, it was just a bit too odd) of an opera I was involved with. 1960s Die Fledermaus, World War Two Tosca and doing surprising things with the end of The Beggar’s Opera worked more consistently.

    I have a very strong suspicion that professional productions use two choruses – one for the witches and one for the courtiers and sailors. Otherwise they must face the same nightmare situation as we did!

  3. What WAS the director thinking? What was the costume mistress thinking? Was anyone actually thinking, or did they just have a concept in mind? Reminds me of when I was properties mistress for a little show called “The Tavern”. The director wanted the place to look like a hunting lodge with lots of trophies hanging about. He was not the one who had to try to find anyone, anyone at all, that was willing to loan their precious hunting trophies to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Theatre Dept. You would have thought the stuff was made of solid and irreplaceable platinum.

  4. omg! great post

    • CurtisCasy
    • April 5th, 2017


  1. May 31st, 2010

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