San Francisco Opera: Dressing the Part

Many Bay Area ferry riders celebrate Holloween every October with great spirit, fanfare…and wild costumes. In a salute to professional master of “dressing the part,” we recently interviewed Tony Gorzycki, the new head of wardrobe at San Francisco Opera.

Here, he discusses the difference between costume and wardrobe, and describes the Herculean task of outfitting all of those dancers and chorus members in SFO’s lavish production of La Traviata without losing or forgetting any of the most minor period details.

Cultural Currents: How did your experience as a dresser prepare you for your job as Head of Wardrobe?

Tony Gorzycki: All experiences are lessons as we learn and grow personally and professionally. I learned from my mentors through silent observation because it was an apprenticeship. Humility is a huge asset for a dresser or anyone, for that matter. The two roles of dresser and head of department carry different responsibilities. As an example, you might compare the characters and roles from Downton Abbey:  dressers are equivalent to a valet or a Lady’s maid while the Head of Wardrobe is like a combination of Mr. Carson and & Mrs. Hughes.

CC: A lot can go wrong when a costume malfunctions….right? Any particular “horror stories” you can share?

Gorzycki: During a New York City Opera tour of Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, we had one dress that had to fit two very different sized women.  Needless to say, the alterations to make the dress smaller did not hold during one of the performances.  Over the backstage paging system I heard, “Tony! The Marquise’s skirt is around her ankles!”  Running to the stage, I see our diva singing her aria from behind a piece of the village church set (it stood about 3 foot tall). She had one hand on her skirt and the other was trying to push the set piece into the wings.  She peered around the corner to sing as I madly pinned her bustle back into place.  Thank goodness she had a good sense of humor.

CC: Can you describe how finding just the right costume informs a singer’s performance?

Gorzycki: There are many people involved at different stages with the process. Essentially the costume designer brings ideas to help define a character and the Costume Shop then creates the garments. The artist completes the transformation when they wear the costumes. The Wardrobe Department keeps each garment and every detail in order for each performance.

CC: Shoes must be awfully important for balance and comfort…what other articles of clothing play a crucial role?

Gorzycki: Shoes are quite important; they must fit the foot and fit the role.  Clothing on the other hand—a cape, a crown, armor, or basically any garment that is from another historical era or hasn’t been in fashion can be tricky. Some costume elements are sent to rehearsal so the artists can practice moving in them. The hoops skirts worn in La Traviata are a great example of this. We even have special rehearsals just to determine how many dresses will fit on the set.

CC: Can you tell us something to look out for in upcoming performances? Any “wow” moments related to costumes?

Gorzycki: Without hesitation: La Traviata! The production is total eye candy. The ball gowns are beautiful and the men are dressed to the nines. When they start singing and dancing, it becomes magical.  It has to be experienced in person.

CC: Do the singers themselves ever suggest a costume detail for flourish?

Gorzycki: LOL! Yes, many have made suggestions, but ultimately it is the costume designer’s decision.

CC: How much improvisation takes place on the stage and behind the scenes with costumes?

Gorzycki: Everything is choreographed backstage to the finest details, from the sets moving on the stage, scenery flying in from above, to the movements of people getting to where they need to be during the opera. There is no room for improvisation. We have many technical rehearsals to find and work through the potential traffic jams backstage. Lots of planning, sometimes years in advance, goes into what the audience sees on the stage.