Friday, April 20, 2012

Operatic Fashions Part 2

Strewn across the Opera House are costumes
from the Met's past, now focused on Manon.
This costume was worn by Geraldine Farrar at
the beginning of the 20th Century.  
There are moments at the opera which one will never forget, moments that just take one's breath away.  Most often it is the singing which starts the barrage of bravos, applause and banging on walls.  Sometimes, though, the audience gasps and applauds as soon as the curtain opens, even before one note is sung.  One such aha moment is when the curtain pulls back to reveal the Café Momus scene in Zeffirelli's La Bohème.  As soon as it pulls back you see a big market scene which fills the whole stage with at least one hundred people, all in the most splendid costumes. 

All these costumes are made in the Costume Shop of the Metropolitan Opera, located in one of the winding hallways behind, below and above the stage of the Met.  If you get a chance to take a backstage tour of the Opera House, you will visit the Costume Shop and see with your own eyes the hundreds of racks filled with clothes.  It is like taking a step back in time.  All the outfits have tags hanging on them, describing what production the costume is from, what scene and who has worn it before.  Imagine making your debut at the Met in a costume worn by Pavarotti, Domingo, or Fleming.

Costumes are made to last for years, and it definitely justifies the cost to make them.  They not only have to last for the life of a production (with some minor adjustments and repairs along the way), but they also need to be able to accommodate different singers performing the same role over the course of sometimes ten years, regardless of their physical stature.  This is accomplished by incorporating snaps and strings into the clothes so they can easily be let out or taken in depending on the singer.  None of the clothes ever have zippers because they make it too hard to make adjustments.

The Costume Shop creates almost all of the garments for the Met's productions.  This means that over the course of one season, which typically includes about six new productions and fifteen revivals, the Shop will create about 1600 pieces of clothes.  Some operas only have a handful of performers, but when the chorus is involved the number of required costumes can go up fast.  The shop created 650 costumes for last season's new production of Boris Godunov alone.

Of course, becoming someone else takes more than just a costume.  The Costume Shop works in collaboration with several other departments.  The Scenic Shop can alter any costume to look old, dirty, bloodied... They achieve this by using paint, brushes, scrapers, sanders and any other means necessary to make the outfits look distressed.  They also work together with the Wardrobe Department.  They make sure all the clothes get taken out of storage, make it to the singers' dressing room and on to the stage.  About fifteen to sixty minutes before a performance, the Makeup Department will help the principal singers put on their makeup, if they wish.  The chorus and many of the singers will put on their own makeup, especially if no special 'face' is required.  However, the Makeup Department also prepares beards, scars and bald caps.

The most fascinating department to me is the Wig Shop.  Almost every singer on stage wears a wig, even if their own hair(style) suits the role they are singing.  The reason for this is that the hair goes through a lot before it is ready to go on to the Met stage.  Sometimes it needs to be braided, shaved or put into a chignon.  It is much easier for the singers to have this done to a wig which will be waiting in their dressing room.  The stage can be a dangerous place, even for hair.  When Maria Callas was singing the role of Tosca in 1965 at Covent Garden, her hair caught fire on a candle.  The show must go on, so Scarpia, played by Tito Gobbi, inconspiciously extinguished the fire.

Each wig is made from human hair, except for white haired wigs.  White hair is not good for wigs because it is very brittle, so as an alternative the hair from Tibetan Yaks is used.  Each wig requires about thirty-five hours of handwork; almost all hairs are threaded into the skull cap (specifically made for a singer's head) one by one.  This is necessary to make the hair look as natural as possible, which is especially important for a Live in HD performance where audience members can see every detail of a singer's face.

Licia Albanese's Manon dress.  She performed
Manon between 1947 and 1959.
The costumes are also all made from scratch, and the process usually starts with the Costume Shop receiving a sketch from the designer associated with a certain production.  This usually takes place about one year before construction is supposed to begin.  At some point after that there is a meeting with the designer himself to discuss the specifics, and often the singers' are invited as well.  It is very important to get their feedback as they are the ones who will be wearing the costumes.  Different operas have different requirements, but in the end they all have one thing in common: comfort.  This especially has to be the case when it comes to the shoes.  The shoes are usually not made in the Met's workshops, but they are adjusted and broken in by the Costume Shop.  The shoes have to fit well because the singer can not be distracted from the singing.

The costume has to fit the singer, just like the costume has to fit the character.  The designer will work in collaboration with the producer of a new production so they come to a shared vision.  After all, the outfits have to tell a story.  It helps the audience understand the character, but it helps the singer become the character.  It is a way to express what is happening in the story.  One important aspect that helps with this are the fabrics the clothes are made of.  Almost all fabrics are contemporary (except for antique lace), bought in the Garment District here in New York, or at any other place that sells fabrics that speak of the past.  Texture is very important when it comes to picking a fabric, as it will grab and hold the light.

It is amazing to see a design go from paper to a finished garment.  It takes anywhere from two days to two weeks to make the final costume.  Men's costumes are made on one side of the workroom; women's on the other side.  The Costume Shop has drawers filled with every imaginable accessory, from buckles to buttons.  Of the thirty people working there, some have studied costume design, while others have always worked in fashion design.

Because costume design is fashion (yet very different) and many designers love the chance to create for the theater, I wanted to find out first hand what the draw is for a fashion designer.  I decided to have a talk with my friend, fashion designer Luciano A. Vicenti, who received his Bachelor Degree in Fashion Design from FIT last year.  If I can see anyone designing for the stage, it is him.  His designs range from intricate ball gowns to classic pieces, handcrafted here in New York with an impeccable attention to detail.  Luxurious fabrics, opulent designs and a passion for his art; just what an opera requires.  Luciano describes his own design aesthetic as a mix of two of his favorite designers, Valentino and Alexander McQueen.  It is the best of two worlds, where he blends the modernness of McQueen with the classiness of Valentino.

"One has to find a balance between what is wearable and what is edgy.  Valentino is very well made, but can be too safe sometimes, while McQueen creates outlandish pieces of art, but is sometimes not wearable at all."

Worn by Eleanor Steber in the fifties.  
The first opera Luciano attended was Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffman, drawn to the theater by the beautiful "Belle nuit, Oh nuit d'amour".  The theater can be a source of inspiration for a Ready-to-Wear collection, but seeing a performance can also be the inspiration for a costume design.  For a modern day La Traviata, Luciano would create a slim and form-fitting dress with a beautiful train.  "I would like to transport the audience to a different time and place," he explains.  "When the curtain opens I want them to be speechless, except for the hushed oohs and aahs."

It is this different time and place that is appealing to a fashion designer when designing for the opera.

"Designers like McQueen can get away with making big and bold designs with no limits, but for designers who are looking to sell wearable pieces to a broader clientele, the opera is an outlet for their creative energies.  Designing for the theater, and even for timepiece movies such as Downton Abbey, allows designers to explore extremes.  You don't have to stick to one idea wondering if it will sell, but you can combine a pool of ideas and be extravagant.  There just is no limit."

It is the way a designer interprets an era or time and place that makes the difference between costume design and fashion design.  "Let's take, for example, the twenties," Luciano says.  "As a fashion designer, you would look at fashions from those days and interpret them in a modern way.  You would change them up to be sellable and wearable in the twenty-first century.  As a costume designer, you would actually create pieces that someone would have worn during that time.  You can create pieces with opulence, including hats, gloves...   These are designs I dream of making, but they would never live past the runway because they are not sellable today.  If an opera calls for it and lends itself to extremes, then I would set no limit to what is possible on stage.  One such opera I think of right away is Madama Butterfly."

Another opera Luciano would love to design for is Aida.  Historical accuracy would be important in his designs, especially as a starting point and a source of inspiration, but modernization would play a key element.  As he explains: "New aspects to a design are very important, otherwise you have a dress that looks like it was borrowed from a museum."

I thought one last question would be to get Luciano's suggestions on what to wear to the opera as a member of the audience.  "I think the way you dress shows how much you care for the opera.  It is a way to show respect, and you owe it to the singers to put some effort into what you wear.  The worst outfit by far I have seen were cargo pants and a T-shirt.  I would definitely say to dress up for Opening Night in a tuxedo for men and a gown for ladies.  During the rest of the season, or if you don't own a tuxedo, at least wear a sports jacket."

A Focus on Costume Design  from Vogue Italia
Inside the Met Backstage Tour Flyer
Performance pictures courtesy of the MetOpera Database

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