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Behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House

‘The costume designer hands over a vision to the department, we make it happen,’ says Janet Steiner, head of hats and jewellery at London’s Royal Opera House.

We meet on a crisp November day, following winding corridors, two lifts and endless doors to the Hats and Jewellery department, tucked away on the sixth floor of the iconic portico-fronted building on Bow Street, Covent Garden. Here, gabled ceilings head into the eaves, full length windows overlook London’s chimney tops and shelves are lined with every conceivable colour of ribbon, stacks of hat blocks, boxes filled with designs. The low hum of the work room is punctuated only by the occasional stage calls which come through the building-wide tanoy.

Janet is the centre of this world, work belt tied at her waist, covered in the tools of her a trade, silvery white hair pulled back in a messy bun, animated eyes lined in dark kohl. She and her team create every piece of jewellery and hat for every one of the house’s productions. After 33 years, with 8-10 productions per year, Steiner has long-since lost count of the number of costumes she’s created. From the Royal Ballet’s famous Nutcracker which returns almost every Christmas, to Salome and Rigoletto, operas which will open in the coming months, Janet’s nimble fingers have hand-created the accoutrements for numerous ballets and countless operas. Delving into the department’s vast archives, she talked us through three decades of adorning the world’s most iconic productions.

How did you get to where you are today?

I studied costume design at West Sussex College of design at Worthing in West Sussex – it was a 4 year course – costume design and making. Before I finished at college I went to work at Glyndebourne. One of my friends from the workroom there told me about a job at the Royal Opera House that was being advertised in The Stage – the theatre paper.

I applied – I came for the interview, got the job and I’ve been here ever since. I started as a junior. When I came it was just hats, there was a separate jewellery department. In 1995/96, the lady who ran the jewellery department retired and they amalgamated the departments. I’ve been head since 1997.

Where do you start with a production?

The process starts 6 months to a year earlier. The costume designer hands over a folder with all the designs. We talk through it, make samples, play around. Then we fit the whole costume and work out where we need poppers, hooks and things.

Salome’s coming back in January and has a lovely selection of jewellery which stage designer Es Devlin (who created the London 2012 opening ceremony set) designed 8-10 years ago. Es works by drawing up illustrations. Different designers work in different ways. Some, like Maria Bjornson, go into great detail.

How does it all come together?

Things develop and change as you go. We might say something needs to be bigger, or needs more colour,  we might add glitter, or some stones. You’d be surprised what you see from far away – even when the dancers have tiny diamante studs, you really see them. And now, with more of the opera and ballet going into cinema, you need a high level of craftsmanship because you can see everything.

Do you ever have last minute changes?

Sometimes when costumes change, we tweak the jewellery. Bass-baritone opera and concert singer Bryn Terfel’s sang in Faust wearing a white and silver tiara. And then the designer said ‘I think I’ve made a huge mistake, it’s Victorian, he’s in black, it should have all been jet jewellery.’ So we made a black set.

What happens to the designs after a show is finished?

Each show has their own identity, so we keep a whole show’s costumes together. It is all put away with the set. In the midst of a show, being taken on and off, covered in hairspray, they get squashed, tarnished, so we clean the pieces with a toothbrush and soap. We’ll take out a poor little squashed crown and bring it back to life. And when the shows come round again, of course there’s a different cast. So you might have to put an extra few beads in, or take a few off. 

Are there special considerations?

There are lots of little tricks. On neck pieces, we use elastic and a safety pin to attach it to the costume and hold it in place, or we use hook and eyes. Often designers give us radiating designs and with gravity everything falls down, so we put it on to net. Sometimes we put net over stones — so they don’t catch, in hair, or an openwork costume. We plate plastic to look like metal so it’s lightweight for ballet. Some pieces are backed in leather to stop rubbing. With necklaces, we knot between each bead, so if it breaks we don’t suddenly have beads all over the stage.

What are you working on now?

We’ve got a lovely new Swan Lake coming in May. The poster has already been photographed – Marianela Nunez with her partner, her Siegfried – we had to get the headdress and a tutu ready for that, so it was a good moment to talk about the rest of the costumes. We’ve made the swan frames, ready to put the decoration on to them. We haven’t done Swan Lake for some time, so it’s very exciting

To go behind the scenes at the Royal Opera House, book into the tours which happen twice a week.