Karen Cochet, head of wardrobe, Madama Butterfly

What you are trying to portray to the audience, you are trying to evoke emotion from them. You draw inspiration from everywhere when you try to achieve that ...

For any stage production, true success comes from the ability to bring several elements together in harmony. From the acting performance or choreography, music and set design, all parts must fit in order to make a solid whole. One often-overlooked aspect of the entire process is the costuming and production wardrobe, which helps bring characters to life as much as the performance itself. Being a costume designer is no small task, and Karen Cochet has been designing and clothing performers for more than two decades. As head of wardrobe for Opera Queensland, Karen is not only responsible for ensuring the costumes fit but also making sure they contribute to the overall theme and execution of the production. After honing her skills for many years working with large performance companies in Switzerland, Karen took on the role at Opera Queensland and is in the midst of preparations for the forthcoming production of Madama Butterfly. She took time out of her busy schedule to talk to us about her career to date, and what we can expect to see at Madama Butterfly from May 12–19.

I understand that you career started in the realm of fashion, but what spurred your decision to move into costume design?
Well, it was because I went from Australia to England and I ended up in Switzerland. I started living over there and I was helping friends out that had a small theatre group. I was helping them out and I didn’t have any budget and I needed to borrow costumes. I ended up going to the opera in Lausanne and seeing if I could borrow or even hire from them. While I was there I showed them the designs I was doing and a few weeks later I got a phone call because they were looking for people for an upcoming production that was a contemporary show, and they asked me if I could come in for an interview because they remembered me! I went to the interview and got the job and they put me in charge of the designs even though I didn’t have any experience with costumes. At the time Renee Auphan was the director of the company and was someone that really worked on gut feeling. She thought I could do the job and she ended up being made the director of the Grand Théâtre de Genève – a big opera company – and she took me along. Then I started learning my trade while working with the wardrobe team.

When you decided to go overseas did you ever imagine that a career in costume and wardrobe design would be the path you set out on?
Not at all! Never. I had never thought I would go in that direction. In the beginning it was easier for me because everyone was French speaking. I didn’t speak the language very well and in the world of opera there were so many languages and many of the incoming artists and directors were English speaking. It actually helped me in my period of learning, I got thrown in the deep end and I learned very quickly.

Not coming from a background in costume design and learning as you went must have been challenging – what were some of the formative experiences that help shaped your design skills?
It was different! Obviously my skills helped – they gave me a precision. The ones that are trained as costumers don’t really concentrate on the sewing side of things. The people that I was working with in the Grand Théâtre had trained through costume schools over there – their work was so well engineered so I was a big sponge the whole time. I learned off them, I couldn’t take enough information from these people that were so skilled in their trade. Having to work with the designers as an assistant gave me the whole aspect of how things appear on stage. You need to look at something from the eye of someone in the audience – it’s a whole other concept to learn.

When would you say you came into your own as a costume designer? When did you notice your career taking off?
It was a culmination of things. I worked on La Fête des Vignerons – a prestigious event that takes place once every 25 years and I was an assistant costumer for it. It was massive, huge – there were 6000 costumes ranging in periods from the fifteenth century to contemporary times and I was responsible for making sure that was all made and put on stage. Also, I got to work with the most incredible team in Paris, where I worked for a year putting this all together. Christian Lacroix had been engaged to design Pales et sa Suite so I got to work with him and his team. Not long after that I started coming out on my own and then the last eight years I was in Switzerland I was working for the Ballet Romand and I was their resident designer, in control of putting their costumes together. It took quite a few years of working in the industry before it all came to fruition. 

After all that time working overseas, what drew you back to Australia to work?
Well my father was really ill, so it brought me back home, as I wanted to spend time with him because I’d been gone for 25 years. I came back and people here that work in the industry heard I was coming back. For a while I was bouncing between here and Queensland Theatre Company, but mainly here at Opera Queensland and eventually I was asked to take over as head of wardrobe.

In that role you are helping put together the costumes for Madama Butterfly, which must be a thrilling production to work on! I’d love to know a bit more about the visual aesthetic for the wardrobe you are going for with this production – how much work goes into it?
There is so much involved, I don’t think most people realise how much work goes in behind the scenes. Even though these costumes arrive already made, we’ve got tot make them fit on every person and make them look as good as what they did on the original person that wore them. Sometimes that means a huge amount of work – sometimes when something won’t fit at all we have to redo it. It’s a really time consuming job, but the whole time we are working in harmony with the original images. We are always working to try and achieve the concept they had in the original production over in Houston.

What can you tell us about the visual style of the wardrobe? What input did you have in that design aspect?
Obviously it’s kimonos – it’s Japanese but the cuts are the same but in the choice of the fabrics it’s very simple., very monotone type of colouring. It’s really quite beautiful when you see it with the set – I’ve got all of the images of the show, they just work beautifully together. The harmony between the set and the simplicity of the costumes really is lovely. Obviously with the hair and make-up it’s gone into that simplistic tone as well. It’s not a strong geisha type of look, it’s much simpler and it doesn’t take away from anything that’s going on onstage.

What do you hope audiences engage with the most when the lights go down and the show starts?
I think the set is really strong – I can’t really describe it. There is a ramp that comes down and there are these different backdrops of the sky and the way is lit, I think that will really stay in their mind. And then with the costumes – the lead character Cio-Cio-San looks absolutely stunning. I love the way that it’s not your flowery Japanese kimono that you are used to but I think the simplicity of it wont take away from the performance either, rather it will enhance it.

What’s inspiring you these days?
I pull inspiration from everything, from all around me. At the moment I am working on three things at the same time so my head is in three different places because they are all different. Madama Butterfly is very classical in its aspect. At the same time there is Barber of Seville, which is wild and out there and full of colour. It’s fashion but with a Spanish twist – it’s completely the opposite of what we are currently working on. And then there is Snow White, that’s a show that’s coming up later in the year with La Boite and the Brisbane Festival. I am designing the costumes for Snow White for Lindy Hume, the director. The three are just so different. I take inspiration from everywhere. I take inspiration from things that I love – I see something and it might draw my eye. With productions, what you are trying to portray to the audience, you are trying to evoke emotion from them. You draw inspiration from everywhere when you try to achieve that.

You can take in Madama Butterfly yourself from May 12–19. Opera Queensland is offering patrons the chance to purchase tickets for only $25 through the Opera Queensland website. Be sure to jump on this deal quickly, as only a limited number of seats are going for this price.


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