©Michael Poehn

The applause rang out, as a torrent of figures swept forward – a long, colourful line of women (or were they men?) on stage at the Vienna State Opera.

The cast take their bow at the opening night of Orlando

Here were figures covered in bold pouf dresses, from the scarlet grandeur of Queen Elizabeth I and her pretty pageboy to men dressed as women – or the other way around – for the 142 costumes.

©Michael Poehn
In the new opera production of Orlando, Rei Kawakubo dressed the character of the pageboy in illuminated tech fabrics

In this tour de force, embracing the sexual duality and trans identity of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, there were two other protagonists: Olga Neuwirth, the Austrian composer, with her engagement in music and art and an exceptional position as a woman at the male-dominated Vienna Opera House; and Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, who had produced a spectacular array of costumes.

©Harald Hoffmann
Olga Neuwirth, the first female composer to be commissioned by the Vienna State Opera, has written a new opera based on Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando, which premiered last week

The complete list of outfits included 72 for the main chorus; yet more for three completely different choruses; and 62 principal costumes, taking the Orlando story even further than its original sweep from the Elizabethan age to the early 20th century.

This version not only took the story through the Second World War to current times, but also might claim to be the first balletic study of today’s fascination: gender fluidity.

©Michael Poehn
Characters costumed by Rei Kawakubo, with wigs by Julien d'Ys

“I was wanting to focus on fashion, especially Comme des Garçons and Rei Kawakubo, because she is one of my role models and heroes,” said Neuwirth, as she received heartfelt appreciation backstage.

“It’s about abstraction of body, enlargement of body, deconstruction of body – that is how my music is. It’s about the androgynous way of thinking about fashion, art and life,” the composer said.

©Michael Poehn
Kawakubo delighted in playing with her trademark visual distortions for the Orlando costumes

The effect on stage was exceptional, from the rich colours and fabrics to the sense of theatricality melded with reality. It was a visual Mad Hatter’s tea party, but every garment, hair-do and hat was imbued with historic references, often illusive but always striking.

In fact, Rei Kawakubo had already given a taste of this rich and billowing costume design by offering elements of the operatic outfits in her Paris fashion show in Autumn 2019. True to form, after working for the opera for more than a month in her Tokyo atelier on the enormous roster of clothes – historic and contemporary – the reclusive designer returned to Tokyo, leaving her husband Adrian Joffe to negotiate the edits and approvals.

©Michael Poehn
Hairpieces by Julien d'Ys complement a play of surfaces by Rei Kawakubo

“The only other stage work Rei has designed was 22 years ago for [the choreographer and dancer] Merce Cunningham – Scenario, which was revived just last week at the Festival d’Automne à Paris,” Joffe explained.

©Darren Gerrish
Suzy with Adrian Joffe at the 15th anniversary celebration of Dover Street Market in November. Joffe is president of Comme des Garçons, which was founded by his wife, Rei Kawakubo

Virginia Woolf’s playful exploration of gender fluidity seems currently so meaningful, even without any of the modern nuances. The outfits were stunning, say a meld of a fairy story in classic dress, but with giant sleeves, and a scarlet gown wrapped in loose folds across a man’s body.

©Michael Poehn
Sumptuous fabrics and textures for costumes by Rei Kawakubo

Headwear – or “Hair Creation” as the programme called it – was provided by Rei’s long-term collaborator, Julien d’Ys, who produced wondrous hair-dos in all their curly craziness. Stephen Jones, milliner extraordinaire, was another element. The hat man explained how he came to be involved in the opera:

“I was getting on a plane to work on The Met exhibition and I got a phone call from Adrian saying, ‘You remember those masks you did? We would love to have some more like that.’ I asked how many he would need, and he said 53 –in three days! And we did it! In fact we did it in two days, amazingly enough.

©Michael Poehn
Stephen Jones created the face masks for the production, creating 53 in less than three days

“It was great to be part of it and to understand the characters and script so I could read into what the headdresses were supposed to mean, in particular the scenes they were used in.

“Theatre production has to be understood immediately, because there may be just 20 seconds on stage, so it almost has to be a ‘poster’ of a hat, whereas a hat that someone is going to ‘read’ in the street or a fashion show is very different because it is about the person who is wearing it.”

©Michael Poehn
The staging of Orlando leaps forward to the 20th century with gilded costumes and headpieces

Joffe explained that Rei had produced her tide of costumes in record time. “With thinking about it in her head, it may have been a little bit longer, but actually making them was done in about six weeks.

©Adrian Joffe
Adrian Joffe (left) with Stephen Jones at the opening night of Orlando in Vienna

“And yes – that is incredibly fast,“ Joffe continued. “She was probably thinking about it for a couple of months before in her head. She was thinking what she was going to do for the women for a while, and the actual making started later.”

©Adrian Joffe
From front left, hair stylist Julien d'Ys; composer Olga Neuwirth; and Adrian Joffe (in hat) with Rei Kawakubo

The visual message, supported so strongly by the music, was of powerful women wearing their garments, however strange, with pride.

I asked Joffe what he thought Rei drew from this unusual commission. “Oh my God! I’ve no idea what she gets out of it,” Joffe said. “I think she is really excited to see what peoples’ reactions are. She thinks something so strong is good for the image of Comme des Garçons. It’s the first time a woman has been asked to do the opera in 150 years. I think she liked that idea.”

©Michael Poehn
Padded dresses and hats like icicles - just one example of the 142 costume designs for Orlando

Emerging from the sweep of music and the performances of the enormous cast, applauded to the echo by the audience, was the sense that this was indeed a historic moment: The first time a woman has composed an opera for the Vienna Opera House; the first transgender subject on the hallowed stage.

©Adrian Joffe
Adrian Joffe (right) with Justin Vivian Bond, the American transgender performance artist who plays Orlando’s child in the opera

Olga Neuwirth has taken into her stride all these firsts, involving Orlando’s deals with duality and trans identity. But she was not going to say it was easy.

“In this house it was very difficult, I have to say,” she admitted. “It’s a very traditional repertoire house, and I had to fight for everything. I had to fight for the costumes, I had to fight for the video panels, I had to fight for the light, and I had to fight for the people I wanted to involve. So it was like pushing all these walls through to the grandeur of vision.”

©Michael Poehn
A dramatic staging of the crossing of time and place that is another theme of Orlando

I only have the knowledge to judge the costume – although I was fascinated by the music. But anything that contributes to the strength of women is for the good of all womankind.