How did you come to work with director Robert Carsen and scenic designer Radu Boruzescu? How did you collaborate with them on the costumes for Les Fêtes Vénitiennes?
I was working with Robert Carsen on a Magic Flute at Opera Bastille in Paris. At the final dress rehearsal, I had the honor to meet Radu and his wife Miruna, who had worked with Robert on many productions. I was immediately drawn to Miruna as an artist and human being, and after that one meeting, knew that she was an incredible person.
Miruna was engaged to design the costumes for Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, and talked to me about it. As I have a huge library about Venitian art and culture, and have lived in Italy and know Venice very well, I offered Miruna my books for her research. Sadly, Miruna passed away a few months later in 2014.
What was your process for designing the costumes for Les Fêtes Vénitiennes?
Such a huge project with historical costumes means designing many, many drafts before you and the director decide on the right approach to create the characters. I think I did around 200 drafts before getting to a point. It took me about four months to create the costume concept. The process afterwards meant workshops, researching costumes to buy, researching fabrics, implementation, etc, which takes another 5 months. Each production takes around 9 months—it’s like a baby!
Most of the costumes were produced in Opéra Comique in Paris. All the main characters (singers and dancers) are measured and made there. For the mass scenes, I bought beautiful single pieces in Roman costume shops. The annual Carnevale di Venezia creates a great demand for Venitian costumes, but there are very few good commercial materials available there. I had the fortune of finding some beautiful old pieces from cinema productions in Roman costume shops. These pieces were re-assembled, re-constructed, and re-fitted in the wonderful costume department of Opéra Comique. It’s a magical place!
Each costume has interesting details. I think a costume works if it’s not perfect. I like to work with the person who wears the costume—I like to enter in the personality of the artist. To use his physical and psychological reality is what I like most during the fittings. To create a personality. A costume is boring if it‘s a copy from a costume book! We have costumes from the Renaissance to the late Baroque period in Les Fêtes Vénitiennes. I included a lot of very modern details in the costumes, which you don’t realize in the entire mood, but it makes the general view interesting.
What are some of your favorite details in these costumes?
The collaboration with the dancers from Scapino Ballet was very interesting. In the scene in which they are La Suite de la Folie, they represent prostitutes and wear costumes with the façon and line from the 16th century, inspired by what Venetian prostitutes wore in that period. As in that very famous period for prostitution in Venice, they wear "zattere," the high shoes with plateaus. I made those shoes modern, and it works.
These shoes were used for high water, but were also as a consequence of a law created by a Venetian municipal authority lawyer, because his wife did too much shopping. With those high shoes she couldn‘t walk very well and hence wouldn‘t damage her husband’s wallet! We used the male dancers as they are, with their beards, hairy legs, and with 16th-century ladies costumes. I think it’s a very strong moment in that show.
Another interesting detail I discovered during my research: I found some pictures of very short Justaucorps (the male waistcoats or jackets of the baroque period). I could not understand why those short Justaucorps would exist—normally their length is below the knee. Then I found in a book about Venetian history that the waiters of some aristocratic Venetian families had those short Justaucorps because they moved better in the gondolas, as their knees were free...I used this weird detail for our waiters in the show.
What are some of the unique challenges of designing costumes for dancers and singers?
Singers and dancers are like delicate instruments. I always try to make them feel comfortable in addition to the technical necessities for movements, etc. To go onstage and sing or dance is a huge effort and challenge, which we costume designers should respect. A good costume is a bad costume if the singer or dancer feels uncomfortable or unhappy with it. Therefore we have fittings where we can be responsive to the sensibilities and needs of the artists. Obviously sometimes you have to fight for an idea and to convince the artist that this is exactly the right choice. Fortunately it‘s never happened to me that a singer or dancer refused to wear a costume.
What inspires you?
Life! The most exciting part of designing costumes is to tell the story the director wants to tell via the characters. Working for opera is different than working for cinema or theater. You have the important fact of the music, which is the first inspiration. Everything is written there, but you can interpret it in so many different ways. Working on Les Fêtes Vénitiennes, my inspiration was books. There is so much literature about Venice, so much art history, it’s hard not to be inspired. If we talk about the most famous and known ones: Pierto Longhi, Francesco Guardi, Canaletto, and so many other painters who describe Venice like nothing else. If you read Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs, everything is there.
As the aristocratic families in Venice conserved lots of libraries, which today are accessible to everybody, it is rather easy to get information about the period. I found during my research some interesting collections of Album Amicorum, which were a kind of precursor to Facebook. The aristocracy in the 15th century and later the middle class in the 16th century used to collect designs of colored drawings of their friends and places they visited. They had little boxes and travelled with them, collecting portraits or general illustrations of the friends they met. These pictures were not created by great artists, but by normal craftsmen, and are interesting as they describe normal life. The draft of La Suite de la Folie is based on an illustration of a Venitian prostitute in an Album Amicorum of Venice from 1547:
Les Fêtes Vénitiennes comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House April 14—17.