Backstage

The jewellery of The Merry Widow

A production remembered — By Pascale Dufay

“Heure exquise, qui nous grise”... The Merry Widow by Franz Lehár is returning to the stage of the Opéra Bastille this season. The work, from the early 20th century, transports us into the sumptuous atmosphere of the balls of the 1920s whilst Jorge Lavelli’s production, which premiered at the Paris Opera in 1997, is a sumptous display of costumes and accessories. Pascale Dufay, director of the Opéra Bastille’s Costume Accessory studio unveils the secrets behind the creation of the magnificent jewellery worn by the soloists and artists of the Chorus for this legendary operetta.

The Costume Accessory studio is part of the Paris Opera’s Costumes Department. The artists create all the accessories which go to make up a costume: Jewellery, masks, armour, tiaras... They are also responsible for dyeing the fabrics used in the workshops, and for creating the “patina” on the finished costumes that lend a “lived-in” feel to brand-new garments so that they appear to reflect the history of the characters who wear them. The studio also makes anything that can be superimposed on a fabric, be it sewn elements or silk-screen printing of all types of patterns on fabrics or clothes; for example, prints from centuries past which we can no longer find commercially.

Pascale Dufay:

“I’m a real jewellery enthusiast: Initially, I trained as a set designer, then I took classes in jewellery design—that was 19 years ago. I was already working for the Opera and it’s still a pleasure for me to create jewellery that will sublimate the singers on stage. I loved working on the production of The Merry Widow, for which we had to make dozens of necklaces, earrings and bracelets for the soloists and artists of the Chorus. We had very specific sources of inspiration: the idea was to create an array of extremely eye-catching jewellery reminiscent of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood, like the jewellery from the House of Cartier. Even so, we were given a certain degree of autonomy, particularly when it came to researching a range of colour tones and shade combinations. It was exciting looking for a way to design the jewellery so that it sat well on the body. Then it was a question of finding the right stones, with the best-adapted shapes and sizes and in harmony with the costumes. It was a long, delicate and fascinating process, particularly when it came to the multiple-strand necklaces because the brazing of dozens of rings required a high degree of precision.

It was essential for these sets of jewellery to be as conspicuous as possible because they had to reflect the opulence of the aristocracy. In terms of materials, we primarily used brass and Swarovski crystal strass: Of course, these are not precious stones, however, their high quality and sparkle across the theatre are remarkable. Of course, one of the nightmares of every designer is having a necklace break during a performance. That has only happened to me once. It was during my first internship at the Opera Garnier at a performance of the ballet Raymonda when I was still a student at the Rue Blanche school. I don’t know if it was a necklace that I personally had made, but a strand broke and all the pearls cascaded to the stage. I saw it happen from the auditorium, and I can tell you that in moments like that, you just want to crawl into a hole and hide! We always make sure that jewellery is sturdy and custom-fitted to avoid this type of mishap befalling the artists… But no one is infallible!

The appeal of our profession is rooted in each new project and the challenges that come with every production: I remember that six-fingered hand I had to make out of leather for Bob Wilson, and also the movable giraffe’s head that sat on the shoulders of a dancer for Benno Besson's production of The Magic Flute. I love finding ways to create objects that meet the specifications of the costume designers whilst at the same time making sure that they remain aesthetic, light and comfortable.

In this studio, we make all the costume accessories from the earliest stage to the final finished product. Our work also changes according to current trends: sometimes, costumes are bought from second-hand stores, in which case we have to spend a considerable amount of time dyeing and adding a patina. Depending on the work and the director’s vision, austerity and grey may reign on stage... and then the currents of fashion change and bright colours return. Audiences like to be filled with awe: opera needs to be a reflection of society but it must also offer fantasy and enchantment. That’s the case with this production and I’m delighted that our jewellery contributes to it!”    

Bijoux réalisés par l’atelier Décoration sur costumes pour la production de La Veuve joyeuse, mise en scène par Jorge Lavelli
Bijoux réalisés par l’atelier Décoration sur costumes pour la production de La Veuve joyeuse, mise en scène par Jorge Lavelli 8 images

Interviewed by Juliette Puaux

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