SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: Into the Woods

Backstage with Matthew: Into the Woods

On November 15th we raise the curtain on a new production of Hansel and Gretel — one of the most charming, heartfelt and nostalgic operas in the repertoire. A work of sumptuous orchestration, soaring melodies and a fantastical world that appeals to adults and children alike. We’re eager to welcome families to experience this and are making available tickets to all performances at 50% off for children when accompanied by adults. One of the most alluring moments in this new production, directed and designed by Antony McDonald, is the dream sequence at the end of Act II when the children have gone to sleep and fairy tale characters from Brothers Grimm come out to watch over the siblings. It’s exquisitely beautiful, and I would love to share with you some of the costumes that you’ll see in this moment.

fairy tale characters

Characters on the stage. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Traditionally this is the moment when fourteen angels come out to watch over the children, but here Antony McDonald brings us a wonderful tableau of Brothers Grimm fairy-tale characters: Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Prince Charming, the Wolf, Cinderella, etc.. These will be played by supernumeraries, while a Will-o’-the’wisp character will be played by our principal dancer, Chiharu Shibata. The costumes for these characters, built by our great friends at the Royal Opera House’s Costume Shop (where the production originated), are a beautiful and fantastical element in the production.

Our Costume Production Supervisor, Galen Till, who has overseen the costume process for Romeo and Juliet, The Marriage of Figaro, and Hansel and Gretel this season, gave me a tour of how everything is coming together.

 Galen Till

Costume Production Supervisor Galen Till with the Cinderella and Red Riding Hood costumes.

We started with Cinderella and Red Riding Hood: the latter a very classic costume featuring a silk dress and silk red cape. Galen tells me that silk is much preferable for a costume like this because of both durability and the more naturalistic way it will hang on a singer.

The Cinderella costume is, as you can see, an incredibly clever design by Antony McDonald — half servant in linen and half princess in silk brocade. Even the lengths of the two halves are different, and there is a tiara that is again designed in two halves. It’s a fabulous example of the whimsy in the costumes design.

 Cinderella costume

The Cinderella costume, designed by Antony McDonald.

We then went to visit with Amy van Every, the Opera’s textile painter and dyer. Amy was about to dye the tights for the Rapunzel character to match the dress. She has developed a combination of sky blue and royal blue and, in the photo below, you can see a pair of white tights here along with a pair of already dyed blue ones. I asked Amy why an originating company wouldn’t send along the dye ingredients so that another company could copy the formula. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple: there are many different kinds of dyes, and many are formulas unique to particular countries – there are different dyes for different fabrics, some are fiber reactive dyes, some are combinations of other dyes. Amy has to work like a chef and work out just the right combination for the fabric and color she desires.

 Rapunzel Costume

Amy van Every and Galen Till with the Rapunzel costume and a pair of already-dyed tights on the left and a pair of white tights on the right waiting to be dyed. 

Amy was also working on a unique project – adding more “gingerbread” to the costumes of the children who appear at the end of the opera, released from the witch’s spell by Hansel and Gretel. Antony McDonald wanted more gingerbread on the costumes than had been in the original run in London, and so Amy was adding more using a very inventive technique. She created a mixture of paint and “puff additive” a substance used in screen printing to increase the relief of the ink. The resulting gingerbread mixture is then applied to the fabric, and warmed with a heat gun. As the mixture heats, it begins to coalesce into a cake-like texture, creating the perfect gingerbread effect!

 gingerbread effect

Amy van Every showing how she creates the gingerbread effect.

As you can see in these costume photos, the resulting pieces are again full of whimsy and joy. Each child’s costume comes replete with a name tag and the date that they were baked (because this originated in London, this child Martha was “baked” on November 9, 1899!).

 gingerbread costumes

The costumes for the gingerbread children, replete with names and “baked” dates.

From Amy’s dye station, Galen took me to see the masks of the forest animals, exquisitely built by the Royal Opera House’s prop shop.

 woodland creatures

The woodland creatures of Hansel and Gretel.

These also appear in the woodland dream sequence, and help to create a very magical atmosphere. I couldn’t resist trying one on, and I got a sense of how surreal a world it is to be looking out through the eyes of a wolf. There are many pinprick holes built into the mask (and the nose) that let you see out, but through a rather strange pointillistic lens.

 matthew with head

Yours truly wearing the wolf mask, and, on the right, the view through the mask’s many holes.

And then from forest animals to the millinery table of Senior Milliner Paula Wheeler to see how work was progressing on a remake of the Sandman’s hat. Given differences in the sizes of the singers between London and San Francisco, the hat needed to be rebuilt, and this was a particularly intriguing one for Paula to work on. As you can see, the hat has a whimsical curve in it and so needed to be built with a material that could be shaped into a curve but retain rigidity. Paula used a material called sinamay — a fabric made from the abaca tree that is often used in fashion hats; it’s about three times as strong as cotton or silk. Although regular hessian was used to line the tip and brim of the hat, sinamay was used to line the side band, shaped by a plastic boning called rigilene. The result is a fabulous creation!

 top hat

The Opera’s Senior Milliner, Paula Wheeler, with the Sandman’s whimsical hat, showing the sinamay material, with the strips of white rigilene boning.

From the millinery to the crafts department and Senior Crafts Artisan Jersey McDermott. We met Jersey earlier this year when she was crafting prosthetic hands for Vodnik in Rusalka. Amazingly, she’s crafting hands again! This time for the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Although the techniques are similar to those described in my earlier Backstage with Matthew, there are some big differences this time. Firstly, Jersey had the singer on-hand (pun intended) to cast directly, rather than having to estimate. She was able to take the casts of tenor Robert Brubaker’s hands earlier last week, and, when we visited, was crafting a cast of Robert’s hands in a soft clay – a special kind of clay called WED clay that will allow for more detail in the molding, particularly in the witch’s nails. The other big change from the Rusalka hands is that this cast is just the top of Robert’s hands, not a full cast. This one is attached to the top of a white glove.


The casting of the witch’s hands. First, casting tenor Robert Brubaker’s hands, before they ultimately become a prosthetic attachment to a white glove.


Senior Crafts Artisan Jersey McDermott finalizing a clay mold of the top of Robert’s hands, replete with wonderfully long nails!

Before I left the costume shop Galen showed me a few of the other fairy tale costumes including the Prince Charming costume below. All these Hansel and Gretel costumes are exquisite pieces and, as you can see, both nostalgic and whimsical. They speak to how magical the production promises to be, and I can’t wait to share it with you in November and December. It’s a beautiful opera for adults and children and I hope that you’ll take advantage of our 50% pricing for children and come and experience the timelessness of this fairy tale classic. And, if you are bringing your family, please note that on November 30th and December 1st, you can meet some of the fairy tale characters in the lobby after the performance!

 back of coat

The back of the Prince Charming coat.

Backstage with Matthew: The intertwining of history and fairy tales
Backstage with Matthew: The Music of Conversation