Shoe Story

What is the secret to singing opera? A comfortable pair of shoes, discovers Henrietta Bredin

The Lady, 6 April 2010

In the last act of Tchaikovsky's opera The Tsarina's Slippers at Covent Garden, there is a sight to gladden the heart of anyone with the slightest Imelda Marcos or Carrie Bradshaw tendencies - the advancing feet of every single member of the chorus, male and female, shod in buckled and be-ribboned satin shoes in a riotous blaze of jewel-bright colours. There were emerald green shoes, sapphire blue ones, deep amethyst and glowing amber, but only one pair of dazzling ruby red shoes, those belonging to the Tsarina herself. 'Yes,' says opera footwear supervisor Ron Taylor, 'and they were covered with nearly 1,000 Swarovski crystals, each one of them put on by hand.' His colleague, Cheryl Knight, roars with laughter: 'And after every single performance we'd have to collect them, check how many crystals were missing and stick more on.'

It has to be said that their dedication to their task did make an appreciable difference - those ruby shoes glowed and glittered like nobody's business - but their work often goes entirely unnoticed, by the audience at least. According to Ron, if you really notice the shoes on stage then they're probably wrong. And when Cheryl recently gave a talk on the work of the shoe department, she had great difficulty finding performance photographs to illustrate the points she was making. 'I took a load of shoes with me and wanted to show images of people wearing them on stage but I had to keep saying 'Well, I'm afraid you can't really see them, but they're underneath that skirt!''

Famously, the legendary soprano Birgit Nilsson, when asked what was the secret to singing Wagner, replied 'A pair of comfortable shoes'. The last thing a performer needs to be worrying about when facing the musical and dramatic challenges of an operatic role is whether their feet hurt. The Tsarina's Slippers (Cherevicki in the original Russian) may be the only opera I can think of to mention shoes in the title but Wagner is responsible for an entire opera with a shoemaker in a central role - and a lengthy cobbling scene - The Mastersingers of Nuremberg. The shoes certainly have to be perfect for that one.

I wondered whether different costume designers had very different requirements when it came to shoes. 'Absolutely,' says Cheryl. 'Nicky Gillibrand, who designed the costumes for The Gambler, has an extraordinary eye but she likes to work in quite an organic way. She scribbles little notes and gives us an idea of the kind of thing she's after. Then we'll go shopping, or raid the stores for shoes from past productions that we think might work and try them out on her. She'd seen some gold strappy sandals that she thought would be ideal for one of the characters but the singer had very broad feet so we had to copy to make sure that they fitted her properly. Actually, she said she always had problems with shoes and that they were the most comfortable pair she'd ever worn!'

'Of course for a period piece like The Gambler, or Manon, which we're doing later this season, shopping for shoes isn't feasible,' explains Ron. 'The shoes have to be exactly right for the time in which the opera's set and that usually means having them made. The designer for Rossini's Turk in Italy, Agostino Cavalca, is absolutely specific and clear about what he wants, and he particularly likes to work with a company we use a fair amount. The owner is based in London but their workshop is in Italy. They've been around for over 70 years - they made all the shoes for Ben Hur and those old Cinecittà films.'

Having shoes made is an expensive business but the quality is exceptional and the shoes can be made to last for a long time. Cheryl and Ron also have remarkably well-stocked memories and can be trusted to ransack previous productions to excellent effect. The red boots worn by many of the performers in The Tsarina's Slippers had previously appeared in a (now defunct) production of Boris Godunov, shaving thousands of pounds off the budget.

For safety reasons, and to reduce noise, all shoes and boots have to be given rubber soles. That's something which would probably not have occurred to fashion designer Rupert Sanderson, who is providing the shoes - mostly sandals one imagines - for the Royal Opera's new production of Verdi's Aida, with its warring Egyptians and Ethiopians and its famous triumphal march. I saw a ravishing drawing for a sandal to be worn by Amneris, the bad girl of the show, in which the heel is shaped in the form of a crouching female figure - an outrageously stylish emblem of her desire to trample on anyone getting in her way. Cheryl was concerned that in design meetings she'd had to throw cold water over some of the more extravagant suggestions by having to be sternly practical, but for Rupert Sanderson, although he's more used to the catwalk than the stage, it 'wasn't a problem at all. The ROH team are experts and the health and safety issues were flagged up early on so that I could bear them in mind while I was designing. That left me free to take inspiration from the aspect of this production that most excites me: the fact that the staging is in a tribal world of its own making.'

The schedules for work on productions at the Royal Opera House are highly complex, drawing in the contributions of all the different making departments. Shoes are part of the costume requirements, along with wigs, hats and jewellery, but they are often the first thing required by performers as it helps a great deal if they can get used to wearing them during rehearsals. This is even more crucial when male singers are, for example, required to appear in drag. It's more common for women to perform 'trouser roles' - Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, or Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier - but in the ROH production of Faust, the character of Mephistopheles, sung by a bass-baritone, makes an unforgettable appearance in a beaded black dress and killer heels. What's more, the two singers who have so far taken this role are Bryn Terfel - a strapping 6ft 4ins - and the powerfully built, deep-chested John Tomlinson. 'Chunky little heel for support,' recollects Ron, 'nice half Louis black satin wedge.'

This leads them on to their party trick. Name any singer and they can tell you their shoe size. 'Go on,' says Cheryl. Alright then: 'Plácido Domingo.' 'Ten' they say in unison, without missing a beat.