Behind the scenes of “Il Castello di Kenilworth” at Donizetti Opera 2018: the costume designer Ursula Patzak

During a career spanning 27 years, Ursula Patzak has created the costumes for some cinema masterpieces. Her talent and artistry have earned her two Ciak d’Oro Awards and David di Donatello Awards for her work in Noi credevamo (2009) and Il giovane favoloso (2015), both directed by Mario Martone. We met the famous costume designer to talk about her latest work in opera theatre costume design – The Kenilworth Castle by Donizetti, one of the two new productions of the Donizetti Opera 2018 International Festival in Bergamo.

Born in Munich, Ursula Patzak studied set design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna. So far, she designed the  costumes for three productions of the Rossini Opera Festival under the direction of Mario Martone: Matilde di Shabran, Torvaldo e Dorliska and Aureliano in Palmira. She also designed the costumes for Monteverdi’s The Battle of Tancredi and Clorinda in the production of Giorgio Battistelli for the Ravello Festival. She worked in Le nozze di Figaro at Teatro San Carlo in Naples, in Falstaff and Macbeth at the Theater des Champs-Elysees in Paris and Otello at the New National Theater in Tokyo. In collaboration with Anselm Kiefer, he created costumes for Elektra at Teatro San Carlo in Naples. In 2009 she first worked in cinema in Martone’s Noi credevamo. Later, she worked in the production of Acciaio by Stefano Mordini and of Un giorno speciale by Francesca Comencini. She also created the costumes for Il giovane favoloso by Mario Martone, an unforgettable portrait of the poet Giacomo Leopardi.

Can you explain how your career started?

I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, after which I did internships in important costume ateliers such as Sartoria Tirelli, Costumi d’arte and GP11 in Rome. For several years I worked as assistant of Moisele Bickel, Peter Stein’s costume designer. In 2000 I met Mario Martone: our first collaboration was for I 10 Comandamenti by Viviani. Meeting him was a turning point: I’ve worked  with him on all his theatre, opera and film productions. In 2008 I made the first experience in cinema: Martone asked me to create the costumes for the film Noi credevamo, and then for the film Il giovane favoloso in 2015.

Where does your passion for costumes come from?

I think it was resulted from my studies of History of Costume at the Academy. Then it evolved thanks to the collaboration with theater costume designers: at first I was just a volunteer (I dyed fabrics), then I started attending creative workshops and, finally, I was able to design my own costumes. I believe that my interest, which later developed into my job, derives from studying art and costume history in depth. Designing costumes for the theatre or the cinema is very fascinating from an aesthetic and historical point of view – you’re portraying a piece of society – but also from a psychological point of view, because your designs show the evolution and transformation of the characters. The more you study a subject, the more you know it, the more exciting it becomes.

“Noi credevamo”, directed by Mario Martone, 2010

What are your sources of inspiration? Tell me about your working method: how do you create a character?

The sources of inspiration can be many. They depend on what needs to be done. The starting point is  often art history, especially when I’m dealing with a  historical subject: paintings are analyzed for their colours, the shapes of the clothes and the materials. Another great source is photography. For modern subjects we go through fashion magazines and newspaper photographs, but we don’t forget inspiration can come from real life, too! Films or documentaries are another source of inspiration. This applies not only to stage clothes but also to hairstyles and accessories.

When we are creating a character, we normally consult the director to get the idea he has of that character. Starting from his clues, I try to read the script or the libretto as thoroughly as possible so as to find clues about the social class the character belongs to, aspects from their psychology  or their evolution. I start from the results of this analysis to make a sketch, which I show the director. When I choose the style of a costume and the materials to make it, an important aspect is the physical features of the actor or singer: the starting idea often has to be modified according to the characteristics of the actor. Normally, before designing a dress, I look at recent photos of singers / actors, so I can gather important information on height, physical structure and complexion. Then I choose a color and a style.

U. Giordano, “La cena delle beffe”, directed by Mario Martone, Teatro alla Scala 2015


Is there a favourite costume among those you have created?

I love the turquoise jacket worn by Elio Germano in the film Il giovane favoloso. I think it was fundamental to give a complete rendition of the character. There is no picture and no documentation in which the young Leopardi had a jacket of that color: it is my idea to give a touch of youth and modernity to a literary personality often described as pessimistic and old at heart.

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“Il giovane favoloso”, directed by Mario Martone, 2014

Let’s talk about your relationship with music in general and opera in particular…

Both the libretto and the music can tell the story of an opera character. Music, in some ways, is even more explicit than words. So it is very important to listen carefully and to study it in depth in order to develop the character.

You often create costumes for cinema productions: what is the difference with the opera?

There is a fundamental difference: in opera or theatre you always see the whole stage, while in cinema there are often close-ups. In opera you have to create whole scenes as if they were paintings; for this reason the choice of colours is important. On the other hand, in cinema details are very important: a button or a piece of lace have a key role in a close-up and are amplified on the screen. In opera there is an overall vision. Certain fabrics do not work in cinema but they can have a great theatrical effect. I think the cinema experience has influenced me a lot in the design of opera costumes, both for the choice of fabrics and for the details. I always try to give a touch of “truth” to opera costumes.

“Il giovane favoloso”, directed by Mario Martone 2014
Rossini, “Matilde di Shaban”, directed by Mario Martone, Rossini Opera Festival 2004

For the Donizetti Opera 2018, you have created the costumes for the new production of The Castle of Kenilworth, the first Donizetti opera featuring Queen Elizabeth I, then developed into two other masterpieces. How was your approach to the character of the English queen?

There is a very precise iconography for Elizabeth. She has always been described almost as a sculpture: stiff dresses studded with jewels, her face painted white, a red wig. But both in Maria Stuart  at Teatro San Carlo under the direction of Andrea and in The Castle of Kenilworth, we have tried to make her more human, less sculptural, emphasizing her being a woman on a personal journey.


And how did you work with the director Maria Pilar Perez?

Together we have developed the idea of Elizabeth in a realistic historical context. A young queen in traveling clothes arriving at Kenilworth Castle, awaited by her subjects. Then there’s a more playful and seductive scene with the queen in underwear and a dressing gown. In the final scene she wears a formal dress, sumptuous in gold and black, with the typical Elizabethan collar. A perfect moment of the queen appearing in front of her subjects!

Donizetti, “Il castello di Kenilworth”, directed by Maria Pilar Pérez Aspa, Donizetti Opera 2018

In this production of The Castle of Kenilworth there are two primadonnas: Jessica Pratt as Elizabeth and Carmela Remigio as Amelia. How did you work with them to create these two female characters?

In this opera the two women are enemies. Amelia is a young woman, very feminine, victim of circumstances. I chose to dress her in a very light and feminine fabric to underline her fragility. On the other hand, Elizabeth often appears wearing sumptuous dresses, with period outfits made of precious velvets and silks.

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Donizetti, “Il castello di Kenilworth”, directed by Maria Pilar Pérez Aspa, Donizetti Opera 2018
Donizetti, “Il castello di Kenilworth”, directed by Maria Pilar Pérez Aspa, Donizetti Opera 2018

What do you think is the future of opera?

I believe that opera should be closer to young people: it is extraordinary but always appears as a show for the privileged elite. Instead, going to see the opera should be as normal as going to the cinema! In my opinion, a widespread work of awareness should be done in order to give young people the opportunity to get excited about this wonderful form of culture.



Photos: G. Rota, Brescia Amisano, Amati Bacciardi, Yasuko Kageyama

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