Blood splatter and mud: All in a day’s work for Vienna costumiers


Published — Thursday 16 May 2013

Last update 16 May 2013 1:01 am

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In a few bright rooms near the Vienna Opera, an army of workers wield needle and thread, transform black felt almost magically into golden armor, and gleefully create blood splatter on fresh white shirts.
Every season, the Art for Art costume workshop churns out hundreds of garments for Vienna’s leading opera, ballet and theater companies.
And its reputation has stretched farther afield too, with fashion designer Valentino, the New York Metropolitan Opera, and even the football World Cup making use of its services.
From hats to shoes and everything in between, the company creates almost every piece from scratch.
“People always say ‘so what, you just need to sew it.’ But until we get to the sewing, a lot of work needs to be done,” says Art for Art director Annette Beaufays.
Using craftsmanship that is largely disappearing today — including dressmaking, shoemaking and millinery — the workshop prides itself on its eye for detail and the beauty of its creations.
Feather-light tutus, gravity-defying headdresses and baroque gowns worthy of a royal court make up its 250,000-piece collection, alongside glittering jewellery and period shoes.
But creating for the stage is no easy feat.
Given the frequent cast changes, every costume requires a moveable seam so that it can be used for more than one person.
More importantly, singers and dancers need to be able to move freely in their costumes, whether performing an aria or a pirouette.
“Ballet, of course, is a high-performance sport. And singing too. They’re like top tennis players when they get going,” says Beaufays.
Even something as simple as a string of pearls is specially crafted: a high street-bought version may snap with one wrong move and send beads flying across the stage.
While the ideas come from the costume designer, it is up to the workshop to turn them into reality.
“The costume designer will draw something but won’t always know how to translate it. So we read the drawings and try and understand what it’s about.”
With ribbons and fabrics ordered from around the world and sometimes even specially woven, costumes do not come cheap, costing up to one million euros ($ 1.3 million) for a single production.
For the ballet “Don Quixote” in 2011, the workshop spent four and a half months just selecting fabrics before it even got down to cutting, sewing and beading.
And the work goes far beyond assembling pieces of silk, tulle or rubber.
“We help to tell the story in an opera,” says Heike Schulte, the head of the arts and crafts department.
The walls and floors of her workshop are splattered with paint as clothes and shoes stand by, waiting to be muddied and dirtied to make them look more realistic.
“If somebody is shot, in battle for example, and walks on in the next scene covered in blood, that’s us,” says Schulte.
“We dye the ribbons for the seamstresses, we paint the hats, we turn green shoes into black ones and vice-versa.”
They also transform simple black felt into shining golden armor: at once lighter and less noisy than if they were made of metal — another trick that the layman never sees but that the theater could not do without.
Every year, Art for Art works on about 50 productions and demand is such that it has repeatedly turned down assignments from the New York Metropolitan Opera.
The workshop’s client list also includes the Madrid Opera, the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris and in 2009, it collaborated with Italian designer Valentino on the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Concert.
It also created costumes for the opening ceremony of the 2006 World Cup in Germany and for Michael Haneke’s award-winning film “The Piano Teacher.”
“Our motto is ‘everything is possible.’ So we’ll do anything, we’ll go anywhere,” says Beaufays.
“If somebody told us to make costumes in Tibet, we’d do that too. It’s not a problem at all.”
The important thing is to create a high-quality product that audiences will enjoy.
“I think if somebody spends a lot of money on an opera ticket, they’re entitled to see a handsome production on stage,” says Beaufays.

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