Carla Teti works regularly as a costume designer in both opera and prose theater. For the opera she has created costumes for important Italian and international theaters under the direction of Daniele Abbado, Damiano Michieletto and Andrei Konchalowsky. In 2011 she won the Premio Abbiati and Opera Awards for her designs; in 2017 she won the International Opera Award “Opera Star”. In 2016 Damiano Michieletto’s Royal Opera production of “Cavalleria rusticana/Pagliacci” (costumes by Carla Teti) was named the Best New Opera Production.
What was your education?
I studied Set Design at the Fine Arts Academy in Rome. Theatre has been my passion since I was a teenager, so I decided that could be my job. In 1989 I worked for the first time in a theatre – it was a show by Memè Perlini, a great Italian avant-garde director. In 1994 I won a Set Design competition at Associazione Teatro di Documenti, an association founded by Damiani, Ronconi and Sinopoli.
I’m a set designer, but I’ve always been interested in stage costumes, in the characters who come alive on stage.
This is a job based on the concept of “learning by doing.” I started designing the costumes for many shows of the company “I Fratellini”, directed by a fantastic director, the late Egisto Marcucci, founder of Teatro della Rocca. Working with the set designer Graziano Gregory was another incredibly important experience. Later, I’ve worked with opera directors like Konchalowsky, Michieletto e Abbado.
Where does your passion for costumes come from?
I was raised among textiles and colours. I come from a family of pattern makers and tailors. My mother passed down her passion for painting, art and colours to me. For this reason, my artistic career has been an obvious choice. I’ve sketched a lot since I was a child, and my interest was always the human body.
What would you do, if you weren’t a costume designer?
I’ve had a passion for this job since forever, so I can’t imagine doing any other job. I actually love all types of artistic expression – painting and sculpture – which support me whenever I design costumes.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Music, definitely. Opera librettos and a huge number of Art History documents, which provide an endless source of inspiration. Sometimes I get inspired by the street: lots of interesting ideas can come from taking a look around and focusing on details, gestures, faces and colour combinations.
Let’s talk about your job. How do you create a character?
You study the opera, the libretto and the music. In this phase you work in team, with the director and the creatives: we share and discuss ideas. I always read up on the historical period the opera is set in, but later I “forget” about it, thus focusing on my personal interpretation and imagination. At that point, I start sketching, until I get the idea of the character. I don’t see the costume as a mere decorative accessory.
My job is strongly connected to the director’s and to the space where the characters live. The costume should serve the idea of the opera; it should help us to understand the story and its characters. It’s like its skin. It should make us understand what’s going on and what emotions are evoked.
Is there a favourite costume among the ones you’ve designed? And a “tough nut” which turned out to be a success?
I love most of the costumes I’ve designed, so choosing one is never easy. But I can say that one doesn’t necessarily love the “most beautiful” costumes. Designing a beautiful costume is easy, but if it lacks a soul, the impact and memory of it soon fades.
I enjoyed designing the costumes for Rossini’s Viaggio a Reims directed by Damiano Michieletto because I had the opportunity to span from realism to wild imagination, from historical to contemporary costumes. I also love experimenting with materials: in 2009 the 19th century-style costumes I designed for Giuseppe Verdi’s Il corsaro at Zurich’s Operhaus were made of plastic.
What is your favourite opera production?
I become attached to every production I work on. I can’t help but feel attached to Mozart’s Die Zauberflote, Rossini’s Viaggio a Reims, Puccini’s Trittico (which debuted at the Theatre An der Wien), Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Verdi’s Falstaff, Lehar’s The Merry Widow (I worked on this opera, directed by Michieletto, at Teatro La Fenice in Venice) or Musorgskij’s Boris Godunov, directed by Konchalowsky. Every production leaves me something important.
Let’s talk about your relation to music and to opera.
Music can take you on a wonderful journey. I was lucky enough to design the costumes for a production of Die Zauberflote directed by Claudio Abbado: it was such a unique experience! Simply thrilling.
You’ve been working for some years in the opera productions by Damiano Michieletto. What is the vibe in the creative team which is among the most innovative and sought-after ones?
I’ve been working with Damiano Michieletto since 2004 and there’s a strong bond between us. There’s lots of harmony with the creative team: it’s awesome when you get to the point that one look is enough to communicate. Despite this, every production is a new adventure, with a new approach in costume design. It’s like starting over again and again: such a challenge is great.
Your favourite designers – one from the past, one from the present.
I love the traditional costumes of African tribes from Namibia, Kenya, Angola – which emphasize the human body, ornate it with decorations and natural colours – and their meaningful approach to spirituality.
I don’t really have a favourite designer. I love Dior from the 1950s, the clean cuts of Valentino, the fabulous creativity of Alexander McQueen, the minimal simplicity of Armani.
What is the relation with the opera primadonnas you work with?
You should act as a therapist whenever you dress someone. The relation one has with her/his own body is a personal, intimate issue. I think learning about weak and strong points is always interesting. Understanding and discussing the needs of the singers, listening to them and helping them is important. I like enhancing beauty but my goal is getting to the soul of the character.
Many singers perfectly know their bodies and know how to enhance them, but this doesn’t always correspond with the idea of the character. I like creating empathy, I like supporting singers and actors, without losing sight of the final goal – understanding the story via their costumes.
I admire the smartness of primadonnas, who put fashion and their egos aside and identify themselves with their costumes, their characters, their stories.
What do you think is the future of opera?
I’m a bit concerned. It’s going through a rough patch in Italy, where theatres are struggling to keep going. I hope culture will be more and more appreciated and I hope people will understand how important it is to protect our immense cultural heritage.
Several of them. I’ll design the costumes for an opera production by Andrea Breth at the Staatsoper in Berlin, then I’ll work on a production of Macbeth directed by Michieletto at Teatro La Fenice. There’s another interesting project on the line, but I don’t want to speak about it yet. Fingers crossed!
Photo: Catherine Ashmore, Yasuko Kageyama, Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano, Michele Crosera.