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Behind the (concert) scenes: Q+A with Cassandra Spence, Costume Coordinator at the COC

Behind the (concert) scenes: Q+A with Cassandra Spence, Costume Coordinator at the COC featured image

Cassandra Spence, Costume Coordinator at the Canadian Opera Company 

This week, I’m posting a five-part web feature about the folks who work behind the scenes of  the live concerts you enjoy . What you see as an audience member – the performers – is a mere fraction of the number of people it takes to organize the travel, ticket buying process, promotions,  costumes, and staging and that lead up the magic you see and hear on stage.

There is a LOT of thread, needles, and careful measuring behind every gorgeous costume you see at the opera. Today, part three out of five Q+A’s, I’m chatting with Cassandra Spence, Costume Coordinator at the Canadian Opera Company.

­­Q: Please give us a brief summary of what you do at the Canadian Opera Company.
A: As a member of the Canadian Opera Company’s costumes department, I am assigned three shows out of the company’s six mainstage productions per season, and I’m responsible for organizing the costumes being made and fitted for each opera according to the designer’s vision.  I assess what costumes will work on which singer, find the fabrics and accessories for the costumes we need to make, and help achieve the desired look during the fittings.

For the staging period, I supply the cast with their rehearsal costumes and work with stage management to determine when everything is worn and where the changes will take place. When we move into the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts for dress rehearsals, the costume assistants and I work with the dressers to show them how and when all the pieces are worn, and we take notes on what adjustments are needed.


Q: Say there’s an opera production opening a few weeks away. Tell us in one sentence what your day looks like:

-a month before opening night:
One month before opening night, we have usually just finished costume fittings for the COC Chorus and I am getting ready to do the soloist fittings as soon as they arrive in Toronto for rehearsals. Hopefully by this time any costumes being made for the show are well underway, but there are always changes and surprises.

-a week before opening night:
One week before opening, we are in the onstage rehearsal process and the singers are working with their costumes. We work a lot of hours during this period because typically many adjustments and alterations need to be made once the costumes are seen onstage, and we usually only have one or two days between rehearsals to finish them.

-the day before opening:
By this point, most of the costume notes are completed and the costumes are ready to go, although we might have a few minor changes. At this time, we are often working on costumes for the understudies – you never know when you might need them!

-day of the opening:
I like to buy some fancy food items as gifts for the costume shop and dressers. I might do some final touches on things, but usually nobody wants to make any major changes right before opening.  I stay backstage for the show, making certain that every detail looks perfect on opening night, and then join the cast and crew for a drink afterwards to celebrate.

Q: You deserve those drinks! There must be major mishaps. How do you deal with a singer whose corset burst after the high C? Any spare outfits waiting in the wings?

A: We often have extra shoes or other accessories at the theatre, but the only extra costumes would be those for the understudies. When something goes wrong on stage, the first person to address it has to be the singer. I have seen singers discreetly remove petticoats that have come loose under their skirt, and quickly kick it under a piece of furniture. I have also seen a singer change his staging so that he never has his back to the audience, to hide the fact that his pants have split up the back!

While the singer calmly deals with the issue on stage, the stage manager is calling a dresser to wait in the wings so they are ready to deal with it as soon as the singer comes off stage. Our dressers are phenomenal and can quickly sew a soprano into her dress when the zipper has broken, and send her back onstage like new (until they have to cut her out of it later that night!).

Q: Wow! It gets hot up there onstage … the costumes must be sweat soaked. Are they sent to a regular dry cleaner after each production? Sorry to ask, but I’m sure others are wondering, too.
A: We make good use of undershirts and dress shields (affectionately called “pit pads”) that can be washed after every performance.  We do also dry clean things after a few performances, and as needed.

Q: What is the most rewarding thing about your career?

A: I am a sucker for an elaborate period costume, and I love finding all the small details on stage. I also love seeing a performer who can make the most of a difficult costume; moving gracefully in a heavy, voluminous gown with a hoop skirt is an art unto itself.

To read Monday’s post about Rade Sekulic, Manager/Owner of Hospitality Tours:

Tuesday’s post about Chris Dorscht, Sales Director for Mirvish Productions:

Tomorrow: the work of dynamo publicist Luisa Trisi of Big Picture Communications. 


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