On the occasion of the Rossini Opera Festival, Operafashion met Michael Gianfrancesco, costume designer of the new production “Ricciardo e Zoraide” that will open the 2018 edition.
Michael Gianfrancesco is a Toronto-based set and costume designer whose work has been seen across Canada in productions of theatre, opera and dance. In 2008, he received the Virginia and Myrtle Cooper Award in Costume Design from the Ontario Arts Foundation. He is the recipient of a Tyrone Guthrie Award and the Jackson Jackson Award from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. He has been nominated for three Dora awards.
What was your education?
I grew up in Cambridge, Ontario (Canada) and I went to an amazing high school that had an arts program which is where I first started doing theatre. I loved the idea that theatre combined all of the elements of the arts that I enjoyed. After high school I went to Concordia University in Montreal to study design for the theatre and visual art. Living in Montreal provided me with so many opportunities to see theatre, music, opera and dance productions that were very inspiring. I also trained at the Banff Centre for the Arts, and worked as an assistant designer at the Stratford Festival for many years which were both incredibly valuable experiences. The Stratford Festival has one of the best costume shops in North America and I learned so much from working with the talented costume makers and designers there.
Where does your passion for costumes come from?
I was involved with theatre and art at a young age so it was something that I have always been interested in. As a teenager I loved watching the TV show “Fashion Television” with Jeanne Beker. Watching the haute couture fashion shows was completely captivating to me and I loved how outrageous and imaginitive some of the clothes were. I enjoy art history and studying paintings, which are such a great source of information for costumes. How people have dressed throughout history is a source of information about society, politics, and the condition of life. I find it fascinating to observe how people dress, and how to translate those ideas to characters in live performance. Working with and sourcing fabric is endlessly interesting to me, and one of the biggest challenges and inspirations for creating a costume. I am often inspired first by the fabric.
What would you do, if you weren’t a stage and costume designer?
I really love food, interiors and furniture. I would probably work in interior design and would love to create interiors for public spaces like hotels and restaurants.
What are your sources of inspiration?
I am most inspired by visual art, both contemporary and historical. Going to museums and galleries is such an important element of my process, and it is there that I see things that spark ideas for current or future productions. I have a large collection of books that I am constantly referring to and adding to. It’s important to be able to have lots of reference at hand. Travelling is one of the most inspiring things to me. To experience another culture keeps my mind open and engaged, and I think it is so essential to constantly be exposed to new things, environments and art forms.
Let’s talk about your job as costume designer: how do you create a character?
For me it is a combination of several elements, all combined together. Of course the script and music provides a certain amount of information. That is combined with the idea that the director has for the production, the period, and the performer who is playing the role. I think it is incredibly important to consider the performer when creating the look for a character. That is the most influential element to me. Ideally it is best when the costume reflects a combination of all of those elements and appears to be an extension of the person wearing the costume.
You’ve designed for a lot of big musicals and large cast dramas. What is your relation to opera?
While I was at university in Montreal, I had many friends studying opera at McGill University. I loved going to the opera, and I got involved with many productions at the opera school at McGill and that is where I first started in opera. I have done a lot of work on new chamber operas in Toronto, with a company called Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, which were very exciting productions. Recently I designed the scenery for a production of the Canadian opera “Louis Riel” at the Canadian Opera Company, which was programmed during Canada’s 150th anniversary year.
Let’s talk about your last job: Rossini’s “Ricciardo e Zoraide” at Rossini Opera Festival. How did you approach the Rossinian theater? And the project of the director Marshall Pynkoski?
The director Marshall Pynkoski invited me to design the costumes for this production. Marshall runs an opera company in Toronto called Opera Atelier, along with co-artistic director Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg that is well known for staging 17th and 18th century opera. We had previously collaborated on a production of “Alcina” in Toronto. Marshall, Jeanette and set designer Gerard Gauci and I have been preparing together in Toronto for this production over the last year. It was exciting to work on a piece that is so rarely performed and to create a look for the show, inspired by the Islamic world of the 19th century. Many of the ideas for the design evolved out of research that we did on the history of Islamic ornamentation, architecture and clothing. Marshall and Jeanette’s work has a signature quality and look to the style in which it is staged and the costumes are meant to support that vision. It is very much a combination of the world of ballet and opera. One of the biggest challenges was working from afar. Trying to select fabrics without seeing and touching them is always difficult, and communicating visual ideas means you have to be incredibly specific, as I wasn’t able to be in the costume shop until things were getting finished. I had an excellent collaborator on the project, Elena Cicorella, who worked with me in realizing the designs in the costume shop in Milan and she was integral in making sure many of the details were done It was an honour to be invited to the Rossini Festival and it has been such a wonderful experience to be a part of this production in Pesaro, the home of Rossini.
In this production there are a superstar tenor and a primadonna: Juan Diego Florez as Ricciardo and Pretty Yende as Zoraide. How did you relate to them in the creation of their stage personas?
One of the challenges of working so far in advance is that you have to make a lot of decisions without ever having met the performers. Luckily, I think, we chose colours and fabrics that worked well for both Pretty Yende and Juan Diego Florez. Once we started rehearsal we had fittings with them and had some time to adjust and re-work their costumes to suit what was happening in rehearsal and how things were evolving. They are both such dynamic performers, and it was very exciting for me to be able to design for them and collaborate with artists of such integrity. As I write this, we are about to have our second dress rehearsal for which we have made some changes to their costumes, so I am looking forward to seeing how that has worked out. They were both very enjoyable to work with and are extraordinary to watch in performance.
Is there a favorite costume among the ones you’ve designed for “Ricciardo e Zoraide”?
I really quite enjoyed designing the costume for Agorante, played by Sergey Romanovsky. His character enters at the top of the opera, returning from battle. We have costumed him in a huge black and gold cape and gold helmet, which he removes on stage to reveal a gold leather breastplate. Sergey wears the costume with such confidence and authority, and really is able to embrace what he is wearing and work with it in a natural and believable way. Working on the decoration and details of this costume was very satisfying.
Your favorite designers – one from the past, one from the present.
I have such admiration and respect for Desmond Heeley. Desmond was a British designer who was based in New York City. I saw Desmond’s work many times at the Stratford Festival in Canada and at the National Ballet of Canada. He was a master of illusion and his use of unusual materials to create something opulent looking was a signature of his work. Santo Loquasto is a contemporary designer that I find incredibly fascinating. He works in theatre, musical theatre, opera, dance and film and I think it is rare to find someone who can work so brilliantly across all of those disciplines.
The secret of your job…
You must be ready for anything to change at any time and not be bothered by it.
I am preparing the set design for a new opera at the Canadian Opera Company. It is a production of “Hadrian”, with music by Rufus Wainwright and a libretto by Daniel McIvor. After that I will be working on “Billy Elliot” and “Little Shop of Horrors” at the Stratford Festival, in Canada.
Photos: Andrèe Lanthier, Raheal McCaig, David Hou, Amati Bacciardi.
A special thanks to Rossini Opera Festival.