On the occasion of Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso which will be performed on April 13 – 21 at Teatro Malibran in Venice, Operafashion met the imaginative costume designer Giuseppe Palella.
What was your education?
“My education is unusual and atypical for those who do my job. I studied in Bologna – sculpture at the School of Fine Arts and lyrical singing at the Conservatory. Every day, while walking to university, I could hear warm-ups and opera arias coming out of the 19th-century Conservatory building. I felt so genuinely attracted to classical music, which I knew nothing of.
An amazing singing teacher I met there, invited me to attend some opera singing lessons as an auditor; my sculpture teacher (a pianist in his free time) coached me for the singing entrance exam. I barely passed it… Yes, I know: it sounds like a fairy tale. Life can take unexpected turns at times! I started working lots of different jobs in theatres; that’s why I deeply respect all the people working behind the scenes. I also attended a theatre course at the Fiesole Music School and I did my training at an important costume atelier in Rome. I worked as a decorator and assistant at the Opera Theatre in Rome for many years; there I met the most important opera directors and costume designers, and the incomparable Carla Fracci, who gave me the opportunity to design ballet costumes for the first time. That was the point of no return: I had hopelessly fallen in love with my job”.
What would you do if you weren’t a costume designer?
“I believe in the total commitment to Art: I’ve always had a passion for sculpting and giving a shape to materials. I would be a sculptor, but maybe that’s what I’m doing: costumes are like sculptures. You can admire them from different points of view, each of them unique in its style”.
What are your sources of inspiration?
“I find my main sources of inspiration – paintings and sculptures – in art history. Ancient portraits are like modern pictures. I have a mood board in front of my working desk: it’s full of art pictures which I love observing, focusing on every little detail. I don’t want to miss anything! Interesting ideas for hairstyles, accessories, jewellery and headpieces can be found in statues displayed in museums, too. Another source of inspiration is the work of the great cinema costume designers: I gather up ideas to solve problems of wearability of historical costumes on modern bodies and to get a fresh take on costume history”.
Let’s talk about your job: how do you create a character?
“The first step is the “scrutiny” of the opera, which means the analysis of lyrics and music. I study it and listen to it again and again. This must be done carefully, so as to get the “material” and visible aspects of the opera, along with the hidden meanings and details. Lots of information about the characterisation of the cast come out of the libretto, from which you can also get precious hints to accessories, objects or situations. Every director has his/her style: some have a traditional approach and carefully follow the libretto, others are more creative and innovative. The designer should be skilled enough to fully get the ideas of the director and turn them into costumes. I usually start drawing the head of the character, adding wigs, headpieces, hairstyles. You can tell the social class and the role from the head of a character, but also the historical period he/she is from. The point is that some prima donnas (who can also be men) come out with their own ideas about characters. They want to be on stage with the same hairstyles and beards they have in real life. As you can imagine, a disaster!”.
Is there a favourite among the costumes you have designed? And a “tough nut” which has turned out to be a success?
“My favourite is a costume made by Sartoria Farani for Annunziata Vestri in Rossini’s Guillaume Tell directed by Fabio Ceresa for the Kiel Theater. I really loved that character, every single detail designed with a heartfelt approach.
The tough nut was the one I designed for Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli in Vivaldi’s Orlando finto pazzo directed by Ceresa for the Korea National Opera. A costume heavily embellished with blue sequins and crystals, accessorized with huge mechanical wings, very hard to activate. The soprano sang high notes and baroque arias while flying. But I must admit magic is easy to achieve when you have a great atelier, extraordinary performers and an incredibly talented director”.
What is your favourite opera production?
“Wagner’s Die Walküre directed by Patrice Chéreau: a real epiphany. I had it on a videotape I watched countless times. In 2013 I met him and worked with him on Strauss’ Elektra, his latest production for Teatro alla Scala in Milan. He’s truly a poet”.
What is your relation with the opera primadonnas you work with?
“It’s usually a long and close partnership. The “true born” primadonnas are artists willing to put their everyday image aside and be completely transformed. I remember when I was working in a production of Bellini’s I puritani in Florence: soprano Jessica Pratt took my sketch of her character to a hairdresser, who dyed her hair bright orange, the same exact shade I had chosen. I cried with gratitude. Sometimes dealing with their entourage is not easy. Once I was at a restaurant, when I was verbally attacked by a very famous agent: she said the hair colour I had chosen for one of her singers was totally unflattering. So absurd”.
You often work for Far East theatres. How is their taste different from European theatres?
“It’s very different. Their taste is often reminiscent of our 1980s opera productions. They want a certain opulence and certain stereotypes which can be too artificial. It’s an old-fashioned style that I often don’t appreciate”.
Choose two favourite fashion designers – one from the past, one from today
“Many of them, for many different reasons. A designer from the past is Charles Frederick Worth, one of the first couturiers. Another is Alexander McQueen, a genius. At the moment, I’m loving Iris Van Herpen and her Spring 2018 Haute Couture collection. My favourite Italian designers are Alessandro Michele for Gucci and Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior”.
What do you think is the future for opera?
“I think opera has a bright future ahead, thanks to a recent generational change which is bringing innovation and fresh ideas. I can see it in young directors: their work is wonderful because they are addressing a new type of audience; they have less prejudices and are less attached to the glorious past of opera. The audience should be free to choose to listen and see a traditional performance, but they should have unconventional options, too. This change must happen. I can see it in singers, too: many roles made famous by Maria Callas weren’t performed by young sopranos, afraid of being compared to the diva and “demolished” by her fans.
“Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera for the Budapest Opera Theatre, Vivaldi’s Orlando Furioso for Venice’s Teatro alla Fenice, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette for the Valle d’Itria Festival, Mascagni’s Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana for the Kiel Theater”.