Thursday, January 21, 2010

Petticoat Opera

Anna Björnsdotter is living the dream. Even on the most stressful of days, the costume designer for The Barber of Seville is able to stop and say: “This is really great!” For a woman who is infatuated with clothes, becoming a costume designer seemed inevitable.

I chatted with Anna to learn a little bit more about what she does. (And you know me, readers – I love costumes and all things associated with them!) So it was like someone handed me a free cupcake when she said she’d be happy to answer all my costuming questions.

How did you get started?
I was born and raised in Sweden, and my mother was on the board of a theater company. There was never any question for me – from the time I was 5 years old I knew I’d be working in the performing arts. I moved to America when I was older and became a costume supervisor at San Francisco Opera. I then started designing on the side and eventually started doing it full-time.

How is designing costumes for opera different than for other art forms?
The number one difference is that they have to be worn by people who do incredibly strenuous things – singing in opera is like running a marathon. It’s really physically intense. Also, a lot of period clothes are not cut the way modern people would wear them. People back then were smaller and shaped differently, so you have to adapt the design for singers.

Can you tell me about the design process?
The design process for Barber was a little different than I’ve had in the past. I wasn’t in the same city as the director and we worked on a pretty short timeline. I also designed the chorus first and the principals second, which is the opposite of what usually happens. First I make sketches of the costumes and send them to the director. Costume drawings are kind of like a blueprint; it’s not going to look exactly the way you draw it. I also coordinate with the set designer and the lighting designer to make sure that everything comes together the way it’s supposed to.

How do you make the costumes?
It depends on the opera company and the opera’s concept. If you have a modern production, you would try to buy existing clothes. For period productions, the designer gives a sketch to the shop. The cutter will make a mock-up of the costume out of muslin or other inexpensive fabric. The designer may make changes or approve it, and then the cutter will make the actual garment. If it’s a dress, the bodice will be made a little later out of a sturdy material called cotile. Then we have the first fitting with the singer and will talk about what works, and what doesn’t. The cutter makes any changes and there’s usually one more fitting. After making any last-minute adjustments, the costume goes to the dress rehearsal, which sometimes prompts even more changes! The dress rehearsal is the first time you see everything together, so you may need to alter and adjust the picture you have of everything together.

Can you tell me about the costumes and what time period they’re set in?
The costumes, which were originally designed for Opera Pacific, are set around 1790 or so. I did some research, but by the time you’ve done this for a while, you get familiar with certain eras. Also, there are only so many examples of real clothes from a certain era that you start to see the same pictures in every book. I do feel it’s important to make sure your designs are fresh. Art is a fantastic, non-costume inspiration for colors.

Can you tell me about the look of the costumes?
Designers tend to make the chorus a little more dull in color and the principals brighter, so they stand out. Figaro essentially has one costume that’s altered with different pieces, but he wears a lot of brown, orange and yellow. He wears similar colors to the chorus, but also has a coat to make him stand out. He also wears earth tones because he is down to earth and doesn’t have these huge aspirations. Rosina’s first costume was originally white, but we had to dye it as it blended in with the white set. She wears these rich, bold colors and has a lot of pattern and texture, like stripes, in her costumes. A lot of productions have her in a pink dress, which seems sort of boring and placid to me, and Rosina is definitely willful ans has her own strong opinions. Bartolo’s clothes are styled closer to the 1750’s. He hasn’t really changed his clothes or attitude since his youth. His clothes are nicely made, but they’re definitely a dated style. Almaviva tries to wear inconspicuous clothing similar to the chorus when he pretends to be Lindoro, the poor student, but his color scheme is brighter and he wears a longer coat. His final costume as the Count is very regal and in blue and gold hues, evoking the time of Versailles.

There you have it: the ins and outs of costume design. And you thought it was easy.

See you on Tuesday!


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