Major partners of the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary

Major partners of
the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary

A suivre:

Abbé Perrin (Director of...

Emblematic Characters and Costumes (part 1)

Twelve costumes from the repertoire under VuThéara’s gaze

— By VuThéara Kham and Antoine Neufmars

For the 350th anniversary of the Opera, the influential French photographer VuThéara, with his artistic director, Antoine Neufmars, has immortalised twelve emblematic costumes from the Paris Opera’s repertoire. Etoiles and operatic soloists have slipped into the skins of their characters. They testify to the importance, as much aesthetic as practical, of the costumes for the productions, meticulously designed in the workshops of the Paris Opera. 

Dorothée Gilbert, Etoile at the Paris Opera Ballet

Odette in Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake

What costume are you wearing?

Dorothée Gilbert: The costume of Princess Odette, the swan princess, which I wear in Act II of Rudolf Nureyev’s Swan Lake, the act in which I meet Prince Siegfried by the lake, the same lake formed by my parents’ tears. We fall in love and I hope that he will save me from my fate by marrying me, the only way of breaking the curse. I also wear this costume in Act IV, the act of the grand adage, the act of despair: Prince Siegfried betrays me – in spite of himself. He has agreed to marry Odile. I shall never be transformed, I shall remain a swan for life: realising that he has been deceived, the Prince goes mad and gives a tragic note to this final act. Having often danced the swan princess, I have a long love story with this character.

What, in your opinion, makes a good costume?

D.G.: It’s a costume that you forget about. A good costume, for dancers, allows one complete freedom of movement: no gestural or technical constraints. It’s like a second skin, in which the sensation of the fabric disappears. This is not always the case with tutus, as the skirt obscures our legs from view, which can be problematic for your partner, especially during adages.

Do you intervene in the designing of the costumes?

D.G.: Not directly even if nowadays I always ask to modify the fastenings at the back to have more freedom to breathe. With hooks and eyes, it is difficult to breathe normally and I had the sensation of being compressed. I discovered the technique of elastic lacing when I danced in Rubis from Joyaux by George Balanchine: I was wearing a costume that was not mine. Rubis is known amongst dancers for making you very out of breath, the choreography is taxing. The ballerina that I was replacing had modified her costume with elastic lacing and, when I tried it on, I felt myself come alive again. I ask for it now for all my bodices. As far as design is concerned, the dancers are not consulted but I intervene in the case of cutting or adjustments because the costume must accompany the gesture to be danced.

For example, in Don Quichotte, there is a scene in a tavern in which the dancers must execute three déboulés. The costume we wear is a big skirt with three panels, very heavy, which prevents us from doing all the déboulés as planned. We discussed it with the choreographic team and we only do two now.

In dance, do you use the costume to “create” your character?

D.G.: Yes, the costume helps us to appropriate the character. For example, in Swan Lake, there is a contrast between black and white, it’s all about the opposition between the two female characters portrayed here, paradise versus hell, light versus darkness, idealised love versus the luck of the draw; and it’s true that when dancing the white swan, I am conscious of these opposing forces. Through dance, I try to summon up purity in all its complex symbolism and the costume is the extension of this dramaturgy. In the repertoire, there are costumes that are even more striking: I’m thinking of the corset in Roland Petit’s Carmen, the rags from Manon by Kenneth MacMillan: one is immediately in the skin of the character because the costume instantly reflects the emotional state that one must be in. It’s the same thing in everyday life: I can be in jeans and trainers, and then suddenly in an evening gown with lipstick, beautiful jewellery and I am immediately conscious of being “other”. On the other hand, on days when I don’t really feel like dressing up, I exaggerate my casual look and that look accompanies my “grunge” state of the moment. All girls are aware of this, it’s not only soloists that can have that sensation. It’s part of life.  

Hugo Marchand, Etoile at the Paris Opera Ballet

Solor in La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev

Can you describe the costume you wear?

Hugo Marchand: I wear the costume of the warrior Solor, in Act II of La Bayadère by Rudolf Nureyev, the act with his marriage to Princess Gamzatti. It’s an impressive act because it opens with the arrival of the soloist, on the back of an elephant, before the famous pas de deux and the grand adage. It’s a stressful variation for the dancers performing these roles: the stage is almost bare, the Ballet Corps is in a semi-circle to welcome the couple, it’s a moment of intense focus and bravura. The spotlight is on the excellence of the dancer. That prefigures Act III which is physically taxing.

What makes the ideal costume in your opinion?

H.M.: The “ideal” costume for a dancer is one that allows movement. Obviously. It’s also a costume that will attempt to mask the physical defects of the dancer. Because all dancers have some “defects”, parts of the bodies that they like less than others.

What is your relationship with your body?

H.M.: I’m not necessarily the archetype of the classical dancer but that doesn’t prevent me from dancing and feeling fulfilled on stage. Learning to love one’s body requires work like anything else and accepting one’s physique allows one, I think, to liberate oneself so as to enter into one’s role more fully.

Is it good to be different from the norm sometimes?

H.M.: Yes, given that nothing fits me, I can’t inherit costumes from other soloists! The costume workshops are obliged to create a costume in my size, designed exclusively for my physique. That’s the advantage of being “non-standard”.

On which details does a costume maker have to place the accent for a male dancer?

H.M.: The inside leg, to accommodate the raising of the leg and the amplitude of the jumps. Then, the armpits to allow for the portées. Whence the importance of gussets, because the fabric, generally more supple, won’t split after an hour’s performance. Also, around the ribcage, we need breadth so as to be able breath when we are out of breath, and for our ribcage to “operate” while we recuperate.

Do you intervene during the creation of the costumes?

H.M.: I intervene with the tailors particularly to talk about the cut, the shaping, the breadth and to decide together where the gussets should be placed. There’s another critical moment in the creation of a costume: the rehearsals on stage. For example, in the major ballets of the repertoire, we wear costumes with hooks and eyes and this is problematic during portées. To manage the weight of the ballerina, the male dancers have to slide their partner’s body down the length of their own in order to accompany her descent and control it better: the hooks often get caught in the tutus or the tights at this point, and then it splits! Rehearsals on stage are crucial so as to anticipate problems and disagreeable sensations, so that the rest of the run goes smoothly.

What do you think of the work done in the Paris Opera workshops?

H.M.: We are one of the rare theatres in the world where the costumes are made in their entirety, from start to finish. In Russia, for example, the skirt of the tutu is elaborated in house, but the top part of the ballerina’s costume is simply a leotard. Here, the costume makers make the tutus with whalebones, which is less comfortable but much more beautiful. Having danced a lot internationally, I can assure you that the Paris Opera costume workshop is the best in the world: the style, taste, precision, skill, the quality of the tailors, the sewing, the quality of the brilliants, it’s all simply magical. Everything is done by hand whereas other companies often outsource. Here it’s “Made in Garnier”. The pieces made in our workshops are items of haute couture. Creating costumes for a ballet, it’s like creating a new collection: there exists a real parallel between these two worlds. During rehearsals, we often meet embroiderers who work for the great Parisian fashion houses. I’ve never experienced such a level of excellence anywhere else.

In conclusion, I’d like you to tell us what you think of that phrase by the director, Cecil B DeMille: “The costume is always a decisive moment in the construction of a character”.

H.M.: The process of constructing a character is a particular one for a dancer. In the rehearsal studio, we dance in work clothes: often technical, loose, our favourite tee-shirts, comfortable fabrics. Once the opening night approaches, the costume arrives and we begin a new phase. When I was rehearsing Nureyev’s Swan Lake, I wore a body-stocking and this sort of costume reveals everything. My job as a dancer, at that moment, was to construct the lines of my body in accordance with this costume which stripped me naked, so to speak. In La Bayadère, I wear trousers, the lines of the body are less visible. In this case, I put the physical accent on my hands and my port de bras. Solor is a warrior, a noble soldier, a hunter, I construct everything from another gestural vocabulary and another dramaturgy. Depending on the costume I’m wearing, I call on different parts and aspects of my body. I think that’s one of my ways of constructing a character, of being that “other person”, that other body ... and forgetting on stage who I am. Completely.     

Marcelo Puente, Tenor

Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca by Puccini

What according to you makes a good costume?

Marcelo Puente: It’s a costume that immediately reflects the personality, identity and social standing of my character. It’s a silhouette, a key to understanding for the audience so that, in the twinkling of an eye, they know which of the characters they are dealing with. A good costume allows me to feel elegant, which is very important because in Tosca I play a knight, an aristocratic painter, Mario Cavaradossi, and I need to reflect the social caste to which I belong. Here, we are in a very 19th century version, faithful to the original production, so my costume takes up the codes of that era in a very obvious way.

Are you often involved in the creation of your costume?

M.P.: Never. I’m allowed to say something at the fitting, when I ask for it to be let out around the ribcage, the torso or on the shoulders, to facilitate breathing. Here, I asked for additional room in the knees as I am often kneeling on the ground in the final acts and I need to feel comfortable in that position. It doesn’t bother me at all not to be consulted, each to his own domain of expertise, each person has their own skills and I can’t control everything. I have to sing and that takes up an enormous amount of my time. It’s always a thrill to see my costume arrive in my dressing room!

Can you describe to me the costume you are wearing now?

MP.: I’m wearing the costume from Act I, my first entrance on stage. This is the scene where I paint a grand fresco on the walls of the church. I come on first in a painter’s smock then I take it off and the audience sees me in this costume which I keep for several scenes. I really like this purple jacket, I instinctively sense the aristocratic fineness of my character. I’m a fan of the collar in particular! In the last act, I just wear a bloodied, white shirt: this is a much more brutal silhouette. These two costumes allow me to be credible for the audience, to be 100% in character.

What does it mean “to be 100% in the role”?

M.P.: When I put on a costume for the first time, I feel the character exist, it all becomes concrete, facing me, in the mirror, he is there, I am there. All the weeks of discussions, rehearsals, dramaturgy, staging, take visible shape. It’s manifest. But I would add that the development of my character is only possible with all the elements of the staging, besides the costume per se. It is through the lighting, the staging, the sets, the narrative, the music and, finally, a very important step, the make-up, that “the character” exists. It is through all these elements that I feel I am “in his skin” as they say, that I feel the entity that will inhabit me throughout the run 100%. The make-up remains my favourite moment in the process and it is really at that moment that I become someone else. You know, this is my eleventh production of Tosca in the role of Mario Cavaradossi so I’m really beginning to know him well...

Are you famous for this role?

M.P.: “Famous”... I don’t want to seem presumptuous but after eleven productions and sixty performances in ten years, yes, I can say that I am known for this role. And I can also say that this is my favourite role to sing. What I particularly like in Tosca – and this is an aspect of the libretto that I never weary of – is that it’s one of those rare operas in which the music “says” it all. With Puccini’s composition, there is no need to know the story beforehand, it suffices to listen to the instruments, the notes, the vocal inflections, the breathing and the narrative unfolds before your eyes. It’s magic. I am happy that I can still provide that sensation for the public every night and recreate it with as much authenticity as when I discovered it for the first time, a few years ago.

Roberto Alagna, tenor

Title role in Otello by Verdi

Describe for me the costume that you are now wearing. In which Act, at which moment of your stage performance does is appear?

Roberto Alagna: It’s Otello’s costume from the last act, that of Death. I created this costume in collaboration with the director: he trusts me, he knows that I always go in the same direction as the production. This gives me considerable freedom. This act is an important passage for my character because it is as if he becomes dead, (mort) and a Moor once more.

At the beginning of the piece, Otello experiences a “first death” as he changes his very nature in order to please Desdemona by converting to Christianity, by wanting to integrate as much as possible into this foreign society. Otello is clever by nature, he’s a former slave become conqueror and a formidable strategist. He has a great capacity for adaptation and remains implacable in the face of the horrors of war, of all its evils. In spite of all his efforts, this new society will not accept him, he will always be a foreigner, he will always be “the Moor”, betrayed by his entourage. It is in the fourth act that Otello reverts to what he once was: during the murder of Desdemona, he invokes his former Gods, blasphemes, with biting irony, against the Christian god, which can be heard very strongly in his “Amen” in response to Desdemona’s pleas to stop. For this scene, I wanted a costume underlining Otello’s “tribality”: the ottoman turban, the bare torso, the sword, the belt, the sweat, the war-paint on my face. It is in his impulse to murder that Otello’s hidden identity resurges; this is also why I place black feathers on Desdemona’s deathbed, to underline the funeral rite that he, executioner in spite of himself, performs.

The other costume that I’m wearing for this photo shoot, the costume with the red jacket is a costume for public appearances. I wear this costume the first time the audience sees me on stage: the military epaulettes, the colour red, the gold stitching accentuate Otello’s military status, his role as army chief. After the magnificent, storm-riven prologue, I arrive in this costume, in the midst of the chorus who are dressed in black, and I announce the victory over the Turks and the crowd exults – “Esultate! L’orgoglio musulmano sepolto è in mar!” At that moment I am the only one dressed in red, “a bloodstain” amidst the crowd and the wild weather; this choice of staging already prefigures my chaotic destiny. For “the Muslim’s pride buried in the sea”, sung by the Chorus in the first act, is in fact himself, it’s Otello, his death, four acts later. It is in an awareness of all these links that the costume becomes an element that is inseparable from the drama.  

“The costume is always a decisive moment in the construction of a character”. This is a quotation from Cecil B. DeMille. Do you agree?

R.A.: Absolutely. And it’s become even more decisive in my career with the freedom granted me by directors in the designing of my costumes. It’s a real collaboration, an artistic dialogue, and that greatly facilitates the appropriation of the character.

What makes a good costume for you?

R.A.: It’s a costume that shows the soloist to advantage, obviously, through the choice of fabrics, the shapes that espouse his body. But the costume has an even more important role, in my view: it’s a doorway into the narrative. A good costume allows that audience to “enter into” the libretto, into the story that is being offered them: to what social class does the character belong, where does the story take place, in what era... The costume is the thumbprint of the operatic narrative.

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