Thursday, April 12, 2012

Operatic Fashions Part 1

Evening Ensemble by Yves Saint Laurent
1983-1984.  Costume Institute at the
Metropolitan Museum
Fashion and the arts have always gone hand in hand.  As a matter of fact, fashion is art.  Just look at the Metropolitan Museum and its Costume Institute.  It houses 35,000 pieces of clothing and accessories, including several opera coats and an opera hat.  Opera coats are still being worn today, as they are merely a long, loose-fitting coat made out of a luxurious fabric which a woman would wear over her evening gown.  I find the opera hat more fascinating, as it is a collapsible hat which would have fit under a gentleman's seat at the opera.

This brings us to the point where opera and fashion can be approached from two standpoints.  First, there is the spectator.  People these days often wonder what they should wear to a night at the opera.  It was easy in the old days, when people just knew you dressed up to go see a performance at Covent Garden or the Paris Opera.  These days, performing a Google search on what to wear to the opera brings up hundreds of threads, including the Met's official answer to that question:
"There is no dress code at the Met. People dress more formally for Galas or openings of new productions, but this is optional. We recommend comfortable clothing appropriate for a professional setting."
On a personal level I disagree with this, especially since people take too much liberty interpreting "comfortable clothing".  The opera is not a place for jeans, sneakers, shorts or flip-flops.  Going to the opera is an opportunity to dress up; the whole setting of the opera house with its red velvet cushions and Swarovski chandeliers begs for a luxurious outfit.  Opening night is the perfect time to wear a gown, and gala evenings are perfect for a (sparkly) cocktail dress.  On regular nights, a nice jacket and skirt is a good option.

This brings us to the second point of view, the fashions on stage.  Everything in opera is big: the voices, the gestures and even the clothes.  One reason for the grand scale of things is so people in the back of the house and all the way up in the Family Circle can see and hear what is going on.  Opera houses are no small place; the Met for example seats 3995 people.

Boris Godunov at the Met -
Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Costumes are part of an opera and add to the story.  Unless you are watching an opera-in-concert, the clothes play as much a role in telling the story as the words do.  An opera, as defined in Donald Grout's 'A short history of opera' is after all "a drama in music: a dramatic action, performed on a stage with scenery by actors in costumes, the words conveyed entirely or for the most part by singing, and the whole sustained and amplified by orchestral music."

Costumes are very important in opera because they form the link to a certain time and place in history.  They distinguish between kings, queens, peasants, soldiers, witches, ghosts... There are historical characters that need to be portrayed, such as Napoleon in War and Peace and Boris Godunov in the namesake opera.

Last week I saw the new production (by Laurent Pelly) of Massenet's Manon at the Met, and the opera is a fashionable piece.  Anna Netrebko, in the role of Manon, has no less than 6 costume changes.  For some, she had only four minutes to change, but singers often have a dresser waiting in the wings to help them with their costume changes.  It is not very different from helping models dress at a fashion show: you only have a few minutes to get it right.  Manon's life story is told in those six costumes, and you can follow her evolution in life through what she is wearing.

Act I - Manon is a 15 year old girl
on her way to the convent -
 Ken Howard/ Metropolitan Opera

Act III Scene 1 - Manon is the toast of Paris, strolling
along the Cours-la-Reine on a public holiday -
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Act V - Manon being send to exile in America -
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Franco Zeffirelli was a master at creating time-piece operas.  His sets were elaborate recreations of palaces and Parisian scenes, and his clothes were grand.  Most costumes for his productions were designed by legendary costume designer Peter J. Hall.  You can just imagine yourself in the Peking of old days in Turandot or at the Café Momus with Rodolfo and Mimi in La Bohème.  Costumes also give a good indication of what is to come.  When the new season is being announced, people's interests are often piqued by seeing the sketches of the costumes and a single shot of the main character in an elaborate and defining costume and pose.

A scene from Orfeo ed Euridice at the Met -
MetOpera Website
Current productions often don't take the story and settings as literal as they used to, and therefore often take place in a different time setting while being scaled down.  Most of the time it is the sets that get scaled down, but not the clothes.  One production that used the full potential of costume was the Met's 2007 production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice by Mark Morris.  The story only has 3 main characters, but the chorus plays an important role in this opera.  The 100 member chorus is on stage throughout most of the opera, dressed as historic figures.  They are there to mirror Orfeo's story, but they also show that the Orfeo myth has been a timeless classic which has appealed to people throughout the ages.  Just by their costumes, the audience is able to distinguish each character, from Evita to Marie Antoinette and from Henry VIII to Julius Caesar.  All the costumes were designed by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, and this was not the first time that a fashion designer collaborated with an opera house to design the clothes for a new production.

Opera is heaven for fashion designers as they can use all their imagination when designing clothes for the show.  Some of the clothes can be compared to haute couture: vivid imagination, luxurious fabrics, hand-made pieces and elaborate designs.  It is not for nothing that haute couture fashion shows are often described as theatrical.  Costume designers specialize in making clothes for the theater, opera and movies; but fashion designers also like to dabble into the forays of costume design because it takes away all the constraints a regular collection would put on them.  Of course, opera and the arts also inspire designers, so to me it is no surprise that New York Fashion Week is held in Damrosch Park, right next to the Met.

Collaborations between designers and opera productions have been going on for generations, and all over the world:
A sketch from Attila courtesy of Prada -
MetOpera Website
  • In 2010, Miuccia Prada collaborated with the Met on its production of Attila and designed the costumes for the very first Attila production at the Met.  
  • In the 2008-2009 season, Christian Lacroix designed Renée Fleming's costumes for her role in Thaïs.   
  • The Opening Night Gala of the 2008-2009 season at the Met was a fashionable affair as Renée Fleming's costumes were designed by three world-renown fashion designers.  She performed three roles; Act II of La Traviata in the role of Violetta with an outfit by Christian Lacroix, Act III of Manon as Manon with costumes by Karl Lagerfeld, and the Countess in the final scene of Capriccio with clothes by John Galliano.
  • Rodarte is designing costumes for the May premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Los Angeles Philarmonic.
  • In the eighties, Karl Lagerfeld designed costumes for a production of Les Contes d'Hoffman.
  • In 1991, Gianni Versace designed the dresses for the Royal Opera House's production of Capriccio.
  • After retiring from fashion design, Valentino decided to create the clothes for his favorite opera, La Traviata.
  • Yves Saint Laurent designed many costumes for the ballet and the opera, as far back as 1964 he created the designs for Le Nozze di Figaro, followed by many more collaborations.
Collaborations are quite common.  Often, they come about because the designers love opera as well.  If you would like to find out more about opera and fashion, check out Helena Matheopoulos's book 'Fashion Designers at the Opera'.

No matter how far the imagination of the designers reaches, there are a few things to keep in mind.  Singers need to be able to breathe when wearing the costumes and they need to be able to move around on the treacherous stage.  Often, the stage is slanted to a certain angle, which makes walking and merely standing in front of the audience a difficult task.  The clothes should in no way hinder the singers, but they should be used as props to enhance the story and the acting.  

Check back next week for Operatic Fashions Part 2 when we will take a look at the Costume Department of the Metropolitan Opera and I interview fashion designer Luciano A. Vicenti on his views on opera and design.

Who's who in Orfeo from the MetOpera Website
The Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
A Short History of Opera, Fourth Edition by Donald Grout
Fashion Designers at the Opera from Opera News March 2012
Fashion Designers at the Opera by Helena Matheopoulos
Miuccia Prada's Sketches for Attila from the MetOpera Website

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