For the majority of the public the possibility of going to the Royal Opera House symbolises a dream come true. A fantastic opportunity to view extreme artistry of performance, to have the hairs on the neck stand up in shivers when the full power of the orchestra unleashes its potential, to gasp in awe at its beautiful architecture and to wonder for a while what life might be like for those privileged ones who are on the stage.

I have often asked myself about what lies behind this stage and have wondered about this creature which brings all of this magic into life. How could something so complex be brought about into being? What are all the cogs that make this complex watch tick? Curious to have some of these questions answered, I embarked on a journey of discovery behind the Royal Opera House.

I wandered through a maze a corridors, doorways and lifts, colour coded to give a sense of direction, which only confuses me further. Never let your attention slip or you might not find your way back to the front door. Should I have brought a ball of yarn to guide me back to the entrance? A the end of this labyrinth, right at the top of the building in the heart of Covent Garden, there is a department, the middle part of the chain in this entertainment machine without whom everything would be colourless, grey and dull. It is a small team made of just four people, Jacqui, Fran Parveen and Marianne. They are the Dye Shop.

When asking exactly how many departments there are in the Royal Opera House I am given sketchy answers: 'we don't get to see too much of what goes on downstairs in the making department', for the Dye Shop has nothing to do with the sewing or the accessorizing or the shaping into final costumes, as their name clearly states, their job is to dye fabrics. The colours they mix have to match exactly the samples given by the costume designers. This is no small feat considering the standards applied by those who come to create a production here. It is even more surprising an accomplishment since to match these samples no precision tools are employed. No scales, no weights, no methods for balancing chemicals or detailed instructions on how to mix the various dyes down to the last granule: the experienced dyer need only a good set of 'eyes'. 'There is no set formulas to the dyeing art', Jacqui Melmoth tells me, 'it is all done by eye, with experience you learn how to gauge how much you need and build until you reach right shade'.

I try not to disrupt the chaotic order that seems to prevail in this space as I co-ordinate my way around rails of tutus, pots and pans with half dried out pigments with iridescent tones, boxes of coloured samples from past, present and future shows, clothes rails packed with costumes ready to go. I have to be careful not to trip up over the numerous rolls of cottons, nylon, wool, silk, various mannequins, (one wearing a cherry designed fabric and a gas mask), the ironing board, a few traffic cones placed around a spill and various mementoes from past shows, whose origin nobody can remember but are kept anyway...for you never know.

Walking around the workshop is like wandering through a time portal that has gone haywire, for in this wonderful space time has gotten all mixed up; there is a fantastic eclecticism and concoction of old and new, alchemy and high tech, the accidental and the computerised. On one side of the department there are huge steel vats used for adding colour to fabrics, where I half expect to see a naughty Mickey Mouse at work whilst the sorcerer is not watching. On the other side of the room there is a state-of-the-art digital fabric printer which would look more at home in an Apple store. In between these there are cupboards and shelves full of containers with dyes for silk, dyes for wool, dyes for nylon, dyes for difficult fabrics, dye to dye anything, even dyes to take the dyes out should you have put too much in. Another room is just for spraying, with an equal amount of spray cans to the aforementioned tins of pigment, it contains sprays for any occasion that might arise. Amongst this chaotic assault on the iris, surrounded by a myriad of witches' cauldrons and computer wizards' tools, sprinkling a bit of 'magic dust' here and there, I manage to spot a dyer about to set to work.

The fabric is placed in the vats with hot water and a mixture of pigments. The cloth must be kept in constant motion so that the dye will cover the fabric evenly. Little snippets of the material are cut whilst continually stirring the potion so that the colour can be checked until the right shade is matched. When the result is correct the cloth is then dried and the dyer awaits the judgement of the costume designer. The relationship between them is a symbiotic one for very often changes are apported due to suggestions of the dyers. An original concept might look very different when turned into its three dimensional version, so communication and co-operation is important throughout the whole process.

Not only they work on new productions, as at the time of my interview the costumes designed by Agostino Cavalca for Rossini's Il Turco in Italia but also on revival shows which have already been at Royal Opera House. Old costumes will need to be re-adjusted and re-dyed to suit the different sizes and shapes of the performers. The costumes are brought in from their warehouse in Wales where they are lovingly looked after by the 'wardrobe department', who makes sure they are kept in order and ready to be transformed for a new production by the Dye Shop.

The atmosphere can be very frenzied in this department, for more than one project is worked on at the same time. During my visit the dyers were producing costumes for Il Turco in Italia, Swan Lake, 1984, La Boheme, The Dream, Maskarade and Rigoletto. This eclectic and chaotic mode of working however does not seem to be a hindrance to the team as there is an air of concentration, of certainty and of knowing that it will all be finished and ready for the performances on time. Last minute changes and panic are the order of the day and occasionally a pair of helping hands are brought in to lighten the workload. The two extras who were present whilst I was there, I am told had spent three weeks dyeing fifty Swan Lake tutus pink, which have a bad habit of fading after each performance and cheese grating eighty belts for 1984 to give them a worn look. For in the dye shop is it not only fine art of colour matching that is refined but also that of trickery. Costumes will be sent up here to be made to look worn out, old, sweaty, lived in, so the dyer has to learn how to make 'special effects' via the application of paint, rubbing, fading, screen printing and all round ingenuity.

The reward for all this hard work is a television in a corner of the room, this is not to present light entertainment or a distraction but is a far better compensation: it permanently broadcasts what is being shown on the stage so that shows can be viewed live at any moment. The staff always gets the chance to go to the general rehearsals. 'You enjoy the dyeing, you enjoy the painting and you enjoy watching it, that's the best part...we'll always get to see it on the stage... it's quite an important aspect, to see what it looks like'. It is crucial to see if the costumes will need adjustments and how they translate when used under different lighting and surroundings.

It must be a wonderful and rewarding feeling to be able to see these costumes which have been toiled upon up to a year in advance, finally become alive. To see what one has created made to dance, used to act and sing in, watched whilst they bring to life the producers' vision and give soul to characters and stories from past and present times. To see the small part that has been worked on finally relate to the whole production and how the different parts of the puzzle finally become one majestic show. I am feeling quite proud of having embarked on this journey of discovery and very, very inspired. I feel as if I have been put under a spell for I am hooked on this magic and cannot bring myself to leave. I am starting to consider a career change and without a shadow of doubt I know which door I would like to be knocking on...if I manage to find my way back to it of course!

Gaia Persico

 

Photgraphs of the Dye Shop by Gaia Persico, close ups of cherry and daffodil design fabrics © Agostino Cavalca, all images courtesy of The Royal Opera House.