Operas, ballets... None of this would exist without the work of the workshops and stage professions. Artisans of rare, infinitely precise techniques, the craftsmen and technicians produce the sets and costumes for lyrical and dance performances. Dressmakers, wigmakers, scenic designers, painters, electricians, carpenters, sewers, stage technicians, fly crew and many others all contribute to the success of the shows.
A far cry from industrialisation and automation, their expertise is a true form of heritage that must be preserved and an exceptional source of resources at a regional and national level.
While the dressmaking, prop and costume decoration workshops are still located in the Grand Theatre, the stage design workshops occupy a large hangar in the Bacalan district of Bordeaux.
The Workshops and Professions of the Stage are directed by Caroline Boulay.
Here is a detailed outline of the different stages of design and production:
The design and production of sets and costumes follows a series of steps that are essential for the project to progress. It begins with the creation of models by guest designers, which are assessed by the production management composed of the Production Manager and the Master Designers: set (construction, painting, scenic elements, metalwork), machinery, lighting, props, sound, sewing, wardrobe, wigs and make-up.
The Master Designers assess the technical feasibility of the project and its adaptability to the theatre.
Once the overall project for the show has been validated, the construction and painting workshops swing into action.
A 3D model is made to a scale of 1:50 using materials such as wood, cardboard, paper and polystyrene. It gives an overall view of the set and the technical and artistic specifications.
This initial approach allows an estimation of production requirements in terms of materials and work time.
Next, the Master Set Builder and Master Painter prepare the measurement data sheets, which are essential for making any set.
The set is then made.
Next, the scenic elements are added and the paint applied according to the model. The painters produce the large canvases and the Set Designer makes all the scenic elements.
- Construction: carpentry and metalwork
The Set Builder makes all the rigid parts of the set, usually using wood and plywood.
He also makes the frames that will be covered with cloth by the Drape Designer. In recent years, aluminium has been used to make sets lighter. Platforms (or risers) are usually made of a wooden or iron frame topped with a thick plywood “lid”. The structures are made of modular components to make them easily transportable and are assembled on stage. Lightness and ease of assembly and disassembly, especially for set changes during the performance, are the principal criterion for theatre constructions.
This plays an important role in set design.
The Sculptor makes all the 3d scenic elements: capitals, columns, statues, bas-reliefs...
They use different techniques, such as sculpting composite materials (polystyrene, Styrofoam, expanded foam etc.) or clay modelling.
They then take a mould of the sculpture and make a cast to be able to produce one or several copies in polyester resin.
The Drape Designer first prepares the backdrop. They begin by sewing several strips of cloth together until the desired dimensions are obtained.
The backdrop is often made of canvas, but tulle is also sometimes used to allow a certain transparency and for lighting effects, or to create an effect of appearing and disappearing. The backdrop is then tacked to the workshop floor, meaning it is fixed with stitching for the duration of the painting process. It is prepared with paste to provide a base coat for painting. Once the cloth has been finished, the Drape Designer adds hems along the sides and a hem pocket on the bottom into which a pipe is inserted. Along the top edge, grommets and ties are inserted with a cord to allow it to be hung.
The Drape Designer also sews all the fabric decor.
The Painter transfers the drawing from the model to the backdrop using the grid method, a technique used to copy and enlarge drawings. Once the initial charcoal drawing is finished, the cloth is painted with a brush, gun or sprayer. The brushes have long handles to allow the painters to work standing up and walk on the cloth fixed to the floor.
Different decorative painting techniques can be used depending on the desired effect. Certain historical methods and processes directly inherited from the past are still used, especially the skills of the Renaissance masters. Nevertheless, for practical reasons, these are increasingly being replaced by modern techniques and materials such as acrylic paint and vinyl binder. In the set design workshops, the painters tack the cloths to the floor before painting them.
A backdrop for the stage in the Grand Theatre of Bordeaux measures roughly 10 metres high by 16 metres wide.
- Costume design
The Opéra National de Bordeaux invites a Costume Designer to produce designs for all the costumes in the form of sketches and colour paintings. Before production begins, the Designer chooses a selection of samples of the fabrics required to make them.
t The Head of the Wardrobe Department then calculates the length of fabric needed for each costume. She first makes patterns according to the measurements of the artists and extras. Next, she cuts the fabric and gives it to the dressmakers so they can start making the costumes. She does the first fitting, makes any alterations and then does the second fitting. When the costume is finished, it is decorated and embellished using fabric paint applied with a brush or gun. It can also be dyed to achieve certain effects.
- Costume Decoration
The costume decoration workshop makes all the costume accessories such as belts, bags and hats.
It is also in charge of embellishing and painting the costumes. It makes all the specific or unusual costumes that require a mixture of sewing and carpentry, such as animals or geometric shapes.
Once finished, the set elements are disassembled and transported from the workshops (located near the Pont d'Aquitaine) to the Grand Theatre in lorries owned by the Opéra National de Bordeaux. They are taken directly to the back of the stage using a pallet truck. The Head Technician separates the scenic elements into three parts: left, right and centre. Depending on the type of element, they are assembled according to a precise plan drawn up by the Scenic Designer.
The Stage Technicians work on the stage or on catwalks manoeuvring the rigging system, and sometimes make adjustments to the set to adapt it to the stage. They often have to work very quickly, especially when elements have to be entirely disassembled during the interval in order to install the following set. The technicians control all the technical elements on stage. They raise and lower (“fly” in theatre terms) the painted drapes by hand or using machinery. They also control the machinery for elements that appear from beneath the stage.
The lighting plays a crucial role in the effect of the show.
The lighting design for a performance is produced by a guest Lighting Designer or one of the theatre’s own Lighting Designers. They prepare the installation of the different lights according to the stage requirements and the desired effect. The light can be filtered using coloured filters called gels. Each light or group of lights has its own circuit connected to a computer. Once the adjustments are complete, the different atmospheres are produced. Each effect is recorded and will be turned on during the show following a given cue in the music. This allows a succession of atmospheres to be produced for different scenes in the show.
The Scenic Designer is also in charge of the models and drawings of different parts of the set design. These include scenic elements and props (crockery, chandelier, mirror, weapons etc.) Sometimes, certain historical items cannot be found in stores because they are too specific, so they are made in the Stage Crew’s workshop.
The Stage Crew is there to “dress the stage”. They install and remove all the props during every performance. They are also in charge of special effects such as fire, smoke, wind, rain and snow and make costume accessories such as bags or umbrellas.
The Dressers are in charge of preparing, altering and distributing the costumes and accessories (hats, gloves, jewellery, shoes etc.) in the dressing rooms for the artists, chorus members, ballet dancers and extras in preparation for lyrical and choreographic performances. If the production has come from a different theatre, the Dressers adjust the costumes to the measurements of the artists at the Opéra National de Bordeaux. They are also in charge of following-up the costume design for the artists and extras. The costumes are cleaned and any repairs are made at the end of each performance. Between 100 and 150 costumes are used on average for an opera! This department also manages the storage of costumes.
During performances at the Opéra National de Bordeaux, the audience benefits from the theatre’s acoustics and hear the natural sound directly from the orchestra and singers. On stage and backstage, however, it is essential for the artists (singers, dancers etc.) to have a “foldback” system allowing them to hear the orchestra in a homologous way from within the set. When ballets are not accompanied by an orchestra, the Sound Operator plays the recording for shows and the sound effects on cue for operas.
Wigs can be made from models designed by the Costume Designer. They are made in the theatre by the Wigmakers, along with any other hairpieces (moustaches, beards etc.). The Wigmakers are also there on the day of the performance to fit the wigs and prepare the artists and extras.
The Make-up Artists follow the instructions on the costume designer’s models to do the artists’ and extras’ make-up. They are on site throughout the show. Make-up makes facial features more visible from a distance and accentuates expressions. In some cases, it even defines a character’s role.
The Production Management coordinates the work of all the technical departments according to the schedule and is in charge of the technical budgets for production and operating. The department is in direct contact with the Scenic and Costume Designers for new productions and organises the making of sets, props, costumes and wigs in the Opera’s workshops. It plans investments for the renewal of technical equipment and ensures it is properly maintained and kept in good working condition in compliance with safety regulations.
As well as operas, ballets, operettas and concerts, the technical teams are also in charge of the design and installation of exhibitions.
The Design Office plans the installation of sets on the stage of the Opéra National de Bordeaux, whether they have been made by the Opera or have come from a partner theatre or have been hired. It also evaluates the installation and adaptation of sets for different theatres or venues scheduled for tours.
It prepares the (technical) drawings for the set production for the workshops. It updates the plans for the show and makes note of any changes to the positioning of scenic elements made during rehearsals. It prepares the technical data sheets for all the shows, ensures technical photos are taken of the production and draws up inventories of the different scenic elements that make up the set.
Text by Giulio Achilli