Is opera a total art? To mark the new production of Boris Godunov at the Opéra Bastille and to find out if that definition, which arose out of German romanticism, is still relevant today Alexandre Lacroix—writer and managing editor of Philosophie Magazine—set out to take stock of all the artistic professions and savoir-faire that come together to create an opera production—dramatist, director, scenographer, conductor, singers, musicians, costumiers, lighting engineers, etc…
In partnership with Philosophie Magazine.
Why do we have so many stereotypes in mind—images that are so outdated? Before meeting Jean-Bernard Scotto, I was of the belief that the costumes which opera singers perform in were first sketched out on paper by a designer with a pencil and watercolours, and that an army of nimble-fingered seamstresses transformed them into patterns and brought them alive with fabrics. But the head of the costume-making studios at the Opéra Bastille was quick to dispel that illusion: “Oh no, no…. watercolours were so 19th century! It’s been a long time since anyone sketched, or at best it happens very rarely…” Well then, are the costumes created digitally on graphic tablets? “Not even! The process is far more artisanal and more empirical.”
For Boris Godunov, Jean-Bernard Scotto received a dossier from the costume designer An D’Huys, full of pictures cut from magazines as well as reproductions of works by the English photographer Craigie Horsfield. It provided a range of intentions, the initial sources of inspiration. Then, it’s all a question of trial and error and searching. Jean-Bernard Scotto and his assistants often pay a visit to a large second-hand clothing outlet in Rouen, as well as the Kilo Shop on the rue de la Verrerie in Paris. They buy old clothes, incomplete suits, silk shirts, jackets, coats, and waistcoats by the bag load—all of which have been worn before… Once we get them in the studios anything becomes possible: garments can be dyed in a new colour, patched up or made to look more worn, and hems sleeves and waist sizes can be altered… Costumes in the world of the performing arts are like a raw material, like clay. It is about shaping it, not on a potter’s wheel but directly on the body of the performers by adjusting a collar here or a pleat there… Ex nihilo creations are extremely rare.
Jean-Bernard Scotto reckons that “In the case of ‘Boris’ there are no major technical difficulties. We have about three hundred costumes to make. Based on An D’Huys’s specifications, we’ve already built up quite a wardrobe for the fittings. There are, in fact, three moments, three phases in the class struggle that unfurls throughout the drama. At the outset, things aren’t going so badly for the people; the clothing has a middle-class feel to it. Are you familiar with the RER Line A on a Monday morning at 8:30? The artists from the Chorus are dressed like that. In the second tableau the same people find their social stability and way of life under threat. So they’ll have the type of clothes—anoraks, overgarments—that today’s refugees currently wear. It’s the attire of a suffering people. These are clothes that are not necessarily uncomfortable but they do communicate a genuine sense of precarity. We then have a three-minute sprint (that’s to say that the curtain comes down without an intermission) during which time everyone has to change: we’ll then find ourselves in the Duma—the Russian parliament—with a chorus of technocrats and apparatchiks in suits. It’s the only real—albeit small—technical challenge for us. Forty people on the stage have to change costumes in less than three minutes…”
I think back to the imagery of the RER line: but doesn’t this run the risk of turning into a harlequinade patchwork? If there’s one characteristic of the crowds on a mass transit system, it is that they don’t have a standardized dress style. Jeans vie with leather and suits with sweatpants and sweatshirts. And then, there’s the kaleidoscope of disparate colours. “Yes, that’s why the photographs of Craigie Horsfield, who himself drew inspiration from the Flemish painters, give us a crucial insight. Are you familiar with collective portraits—Rembrandt’s Drapers’ Guild, for example? Well, we’re going to standardize the hues in browns and greys, bringing everything into darker shades so that nothing clashes. In addition, all the faces are going to appear very pale, thanks to the makeup, which is going to reinforce the impression of unity.”
I grasp the concept, however this still doesn’t resolve the issue of the principal characters: a Czar remains an imposing character, does he not? So how should we dress him? With a crown? Brocade? Scarlet velvet? A ruff collar? Passementerie, gilded embroidery? “Nothing like that” explains Jean-Bernard Scotto. “That’s where the press clippings are useful. If you look at them with the eye of a costumier, you’ll see that Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama are pretty much dressed in the same way: They each have highly tailored two-piece suits, even when their physique isn’t really apt for that type of cut! As soon as a suit is a little less tailored, a little straighter, you know that you’ve drifted back into the middle classes.”
Adorno at the thrift shop
However, this in itself raises a problematic philosophical paradox: if opera is a stage art, can you really show singers dressed like people in everyday life coming out of an underground station or as leaders at a Davos summit? Is it possible to use the kind of clothes that you would see in the public areas, or does the set alone create an effect capable of transposing or metamorphosing telegraphic fabrics?
The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno explored this very question in his article Bourgeois Opera. “Perhaps it is through its relationship with costumes that we are best positioned to grasp the crisis afflicting opera”, he observed in the 1950s, “because opera is first and foremost a costume art”. “Costumes are essential to it: unlike dramatic theatre, an opera without costumes would be a paradox. If the gestures which the singers draw on from their "stock" already represent a part of the costume, the voice itself is a complete costume, which the ‘‘natural’’ man effectively dons as soon as he walks onto the opera stage.”
Opera (sometimes) bestows its audience with something akin to a childlike joy, precisely because everything is make-believe, exaggerated and mythical. It is like a fairy tale or a puppet show. The lion or the ogre begins to speak with an odd booming voice. And yet, while most 20th century art forms have cast off their formal conventions to express things as they really were, how could opera shed its sartorial livery? How could people who sing in a strange and overly ornate way possibly know how to express life stripped bare to its essence? “And therein lies the paradox”, admits Jean-Bernard Scotto, but it is also true in everyday life. Try to dress neutrally without making a conscious choice: It’s impossible. A desire to have no dress style is still ultimately a style in itself. Take any basic tracksuit—the most common model—and a pair of white sneakers. It will not communicate the same message if it is worn by an 18-year-old or a man of 55. A grey T-shirt worn by a manager is a symbol in itself. For us then, all the subtlety in this production of ‘Boris’ is using costumes to communicate the desire for a non-costume!” Which brings us back to that nagging question of "fuss-less" art? What form should be best jettisoned to express the reality of our lives? Wouldn’t it be subtler or more polished than the others ?