Opera in Conversation: The Costumes of the ONE Festival

Mar 21, 2019

Tickets are still available for the ONE Festival!

Our second Opera in Conversation of the 2019 ONE Festival featured the costume designer of Les Enfants Terribles, Camille Assaf, and of Faust, Kaye Voyce. Producing Director Kurt Howard moderated the conversation. Both Camille and Kaye are artists in residence during the ONE Festival, so the numerous costumes will be made in Omaha. In a way, the costumes take on a sort of site specificity that is exciting to explore.

Camille Assaf is based in Paris and worked in New York before that. She met James Darrah, the Artistic Director of the Festival, through Opera America, where they realized that their artistic sensibilities were similar.

Kaye Voyce is based in New York and has worked with the director of Faust, Lileana-Blain Cruz, before. She remarks with a chuckle that with Lileana’s debut in opera, Lileana finally has a medium with space for her vision and energy.

Each Costume Designer is an artist in their own right, with differing methods of research, compilation, communication, presentation, and aesthetic tastes. They are conduits of expression and character. Sketches require different focuses and specificity-- ones for a director might need to convey an emotion, for example, while the one to a builder might need to indicate where the seams are. Costume designers are artists, philosophers, seamstresses, therapists, and editors of a production. To be reductive to their roles in the conception and realization of a production pays them a disservice, as they are sewn into the fabric (no pun intended) of the project from the beginning.

Kaye, for example, details the many conversations that she had with both the lighting designer and conductor following the score of Faust together. She had to identify what the characters are truly saying to one another. From that base, she found references to incorporate into her designs that resonated. They had to visit and revisit the flow of the opera and check in with one another. It’s a process that is in constant flow because until the bodies are in the clothing and moving, it’s theoretical. The detail oriented massaging comes afterwards: “Where should the zipper be… does it want to hook... it has to be removable... the actress is 5’10, not 6’3... there’s a train?!”

Kaye’s work prior to sketching for Faust was in character specific research, figuring out types of parallels to people in the world, and making it concrete within the opera. Understanding people and their motivations and reflecting it within the clothing is extremely powerful: in Faust, for example, Kaye has to tackle what it means for a character to dress younger than he truly is. Her point of view has to differ from Camille’s for many reasons, but one is that the world of Faust is much less dreamy, and the music is less open-- all of this informs her stylistic choices.

Kaye’s inspiration for her designs for Faust came from a contrast between hot colors, cold technology, and the expression of the modern world. She showed us several collages from design process, saying that she felt as if photograph was the right medium to work with for Faust. For one of the most striking looks in the opera, the pink dress worn by Marguerite is reminiscent of the bright red gown worn by Anne Hathaway from the 2018 Oscars. The dress will be worn over jeans and a white shirt, as Marguerite is imagined as a woman who works in a sports bar and is allowing herself to imagine, just for a moment, about the idea of a fantastical life.

Camille, working with Les Enfants Terribles, has the opportunity to work in a very precious way because the cast is so small. She is afforded more face to face exchanges and can be present in more rehearsals. The small cast and the nature of this rendition of Les Enfants Terribles affords its own challenges, however, as the work is movement based and unscripted-- emotion comes from the body as much as the music. The music is fluid and cinematic, and this imprints itself onto her work. Camille’s designs nod to contemporary photography, subculture, and drapery.

Character formation and definition in the performing arts comes in part from the costume designers, but also through the collaboration between performers and the designers. It’s a special relationship. Both Camille and Kaye agree that there are many intimate moments of building trust in the fitting room. Often artists will ask to feel a certain way, or admit that they aren’t feeling confidant or comfortable, or the designer must learn how shapes drape on the person’s body on short notice. They build the character together. Sometimes, the costume designer and their vision is the first connection that an artist has with the production.

Camille mentions that working with artists in that capacity means that they come with baggage, and costume designers have to be respectful of that.

“It’s not just body, but soul, emotions, whatever stage of life they’re in… we have to listen,”, she says.

Kurt Howard asks them to describe a time when something in the artistic process just wasn’t working. Camille tells us about a time when an actress’s pregnancy was at odds with the textual character. As Kurt states, “They are people, not just automatons… how do we accommodate them as people?” Camille and the team didn’t hide the pregnancy, they worked with it and came to a deeper understanding of the character as a result.

Kaye recalls a time when she designed a beautiful pair of trousers that the actress hated, and Kaye had to stand her ground to keep them for the sake of the artistic vision. She discovered later, upon meeting the actress again, that the actress had hated the pants at the time because they’d subconsciously reminded her of her mother. As these stories demonstrate, there is an emotional factor with clothing.

The process can be frustrating, anxiety inducing, but also illuminating. Characters can be explored in deeper and more expansive ways. Kaye was costuming a piece in a redwood forest in Santa Cruz; the costumes had only been seen in a small room before, and upon seeing them outdoors, she realized with horror that the scale was 100% wrong, and that it needed “to be ball gowns to have any presence in the space”.

Camille’s debut was one of great stress when a mere four months after her graduation she was working with a legend of downtown New York Theatre, La Mama. Camille established an attic sweatshop with three sewing machines. There was no script, there were 40 people on stage, no dress rehearsals, and some actors did not even have fittings. Communication was not the priority for the production-- Camille once spotted four new people on stage and she asked who they were, and the director replied, “oh, they’re the passage of time”. The passage of time still had to be clothed on a budget. The first performance was nerve-wracking “But,” says Camille, “There was a show that happened from beginning to end, and I cried from beginning to end… I seriously can’t believe that the show did go on”.

Those stories are the culmination of bad luck and unfortunate communication, but the circumstances are much more comfortable for the ONE Festival. Both Kaye and Camille have been planning for a year. By our current count, Kaye will have created between 125 and 150 costumes for Faust, and Camille will have created between 24 and 30 costumes for Les Enfants Terribles. We can’t wait to see the culmination of hard work, strong vision, and the sparks of collaboration between brilliant minds of the ONE Festival.

By Lillian Snortland
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

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