Behind the scenes of “Nabucco” at the Festival Verdi: the costume designer Gianluca Sbicca

During a career spanning 19 years, Gianluca Sbicca has created the costumes for some theater production. In 2001 he began an artistic partnership with Luca Ronconi which continued for 15 years until his last production Lehman Trilogy. His talent and artistry have earned his UBU Award for the work in Il Ratto d’Europa (2012) directed by Claudio Longhi. In 2016 he began collaborating with Ricci / Forte for the production of Puccini’s Turandot at the Macerata Opera Festival. Sbicca dresses some of the greatest Italian actors including Mariangela Melato, Anna Proclemer, Giorgio Albertazzi, Umberto Orsini, Massimo Popolizio, Iaia Forte, Anna Galiena, Ottavia Piccolo, Ornella Muti , Laura Marinoni, Alessandro Benvenuti, Fabrizio Gifuni, Lucrezia Lante Della Rovere, Giuseppe Battiston, Valentina Cervi, Ennio Fantastichini, Remo Girone, Alessandro Haber and many others.
He has collaborated with the fashion designer Antonio Marras in performances including Sogno di una notte del mezz’estate (directed by Ronconi) and La Famiglia Addams (directed by Gallione).

We met the famous costume designer to talk about her latest work in opera theatre costume design – Nabucco by Verdi, one of the productions of the Festival Verdi 2019 in Parma.

Can you explain how your career started?

Throughout my studies and training I have always attended art courses; I ended up doing this job by chance, starting out as decorator and painter. I took my first steps in the world of theatre after enrolling in the Brera Academy: there, I studied set design, the subject I knew the least about. That course included a program about costumes (the professor was Luisa Spinatelli): everything started from there.

Where does your passion for costumes come from?

It’s a passion that has slowly grown stronger and stronger. At first I was interested in fashion, but I didn’t know much about it. While attending Brera, I started working at some fashion houses as a student. For example, I collaborated with Gianfranco Ferrè for some shows. Then, Simone Valsecchi and I (we worked together until 2008) arrived at Piccolo Teatro and that was that. My career has developed in a very unusual and unique way. You usually have to do a long internship, maybe assisting costume designers or working in theatre ateliers; I skipped all that part. I worked as assistant only twice: once I worked with Maria Carla Ricotti and once with Jacques Reynaud. Simone and I designed the costumes of our third show, directed by Luca Ronconi. It all started like this and I haven’t stopped since. Every time I design the costumes for a show, my love for this job grows stronger. And I’ve done it many times. For example, this Nabucco is my 93rd work in a 19-year career.

Lo specchio del diavolo, directed by Luca Ronconi, costumes by Gianluca Sbicca and Simone Valsecchi,

The 10-year collaboration with Luca Ronconi has been very important to you. What can you tell us about the Master?

I’m hugely grateful. Many call him Master, but he was really a master to me. I’m doing this job thanks to him: he shaped my taste, my approach to costume design, to theatre, to actors, singers, to written works. I owe him a lot and I miss him a lot. I miss the opportunity of learning something new by working at a new production. I miss his enlightened vision on different topics. I miss his sharp humor. Working with him wasn’t easy but he was a genius, not only at the theatre. Theatre was his way to express himself. The real show didn’t happen on stage, though, but behind the scenes – the creative process, the rehearsals, his directions, his reasons. I am lucky to have met him and to have worked on memorable shows. He was always able to push you to the limit. After working with him for so long, I can honestly say that I am worried about everything but I am afraid of nothing.

Nel bosco degli spiriti, directed by Luca Ronconi, costumes by Gianluca Sbicca, 2008

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

Many can be the sources of inspiration, but what generally works for me is researching images. After meeting the director, I usually go to a bookshop and buy two or three new books about a certain subject. Then I put together huge dossiers (400-500 pages) that I bring to other meetings with the director, so I can explain my ideas. I think this is a very challenging and engaging moment for the whole creative team, because sometimes a picture can spark an idea in the director or in the set designer. It’s happened that ideas for costumes have been reworked for the set or prop designs. After this phase, the real work on costumes starts – the study of every single character and the sketches. If I have time (very rarely lately) I do my sketches using the picture of the actor or the singer, so I can see the body type of those who will wear the costume and the “flaws” I have to hide or emphasize, if necessary. I started using this approach with Ronconi, who didn’t like ordinary sketches: he said they usually idealised the character. The result of my approach is quite true to life.

After the planning phase, I like focusing on the creation of every single costume. I do some patterns that will be used by cutters to see how to make the costume. I like complex or unusual cuts and I can’t really stand over-decorated costumes. Another important phase is sampling fabrics. It’s so important that while I’m drawing the sketch, I already know what fabric will be used for that costume. I sometimes fall in love with a fabric and I start doing my sketch from there. It’s happened with the red costume of Abigaille in the 3rd act of this Nabucco: it’s made of silk duchesse, a very bright and structured fabric that has made the production possible (the Nabucco costumes have been manufactured by the Compagnia Italiana della Moda e del Costume, an atelier born out of the old Sartoria Brancato. Finally, it’s stage time. And it’s always a bit of a shock. You know, seeing on stage something that was born in your head. It’s a strange feeling, wonderful and terrifying. I don’t know how to explain it: it’s like cutting the umbilical cord. That costume and that character stop being yours but they belong to everybody. It’s something I’ll never get used to.

You usually design costumes for theatre: what are the differences with the world of opera?

My approach is the same but there surely are differences. First of all, the number of costumes. If there are more than 60 chorus singers on stage, I can’t avoid thinking about the visual impact of the huge group of people that almost become part of the set design. They are not simply characters inhabiting a space, but they go beyond space. That’s why a constant discussion with the set designer is so important, especially when setting up an opera performance. Working with other departments is fundamental. If I can use a metaphor, I would say a production is like a cake and the costumes, the sets, the lights, the performance are its ingredients. If one ingredient overpowers the others, the cake tastes like egg, or like flour, or it’s too sweet. In any case, it will never be a good cake. We’re all ingredients used by the pastry chef that is the director: he’s the only one who can envision the final result, the cake that will be sold at the counter.

Is there a favourite costume among those you have created?

I’m always unsatisfied, so choosing is not easy. I could choose a production and not a costume, but it would still be difficult: choosing one over the others would be like belittling them. They’re all parts of myself. Let’s say I’m particularly close to “Freud o l’interpretazione dei sogni”, directed by Federico Tiezzi, a Piccolo Teatro production. It was a show that gave me lots of satisfaction, including the award Le maschere del teatro and an UBU award as best set design, an award that hadn’t been given to a costume designer for 40 years. Among the difficult or challenging productions there’s surely Lo specchio del diavolo, directed by Luca Ronconi, performed in 2006 in Turin during the Winter Olympic Games: it was the history of world economy from the caveman to modern times. It featured more than 180 costumes from different historical periods, and they were all made of paper. Pinstriped suits, coats, 18th-century costumes, tails, all made of paper. We even made some sweaters by cutting thin paper stripes and hand-knitting them. It was crazy.

Freud o l’interpretazione dei sogni, directed by Federico Tiezzi, Costumes by Gianluca Sbicca, 2018

What is your favorite opera production?

Probably the first, even if I’m close to all the shows I’ve worked on. It was Julius Caesar by Haendel, directed by Ronconi, which I worked on with Simone Valsecchi in 2002 for the Real Theatre of Madrid, and later performed at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna. Cleopatra and all the cast wore original costumes from the 1920s/1930s purchased from a collector in Milan. They were literally museum-worth costumes. I remember a wonderful dress from the 1920s, made of black tulle, embroidered in black jet and gold beads with Egyptian motifs. There was also a dress by Callot Soeurs that would have been the envy of the MET. It’s comforting to know that all those wonderful creations are still in Madrid, kept as relics in the theatre atelier and not in some cardboard box left in a warehouse.

G.F.Handel, Giulio Cesare, directed by Luca Ronconi, costumes by Gianluca Sbicca – Teatro Real Madrid 2002

For the Verdi Festival 2019 you designed the costumes of the new Nabucco production. How did you approach one of the most popular Verdi operas?

When I start working on an opera, I try to read up the libretto and learn as much as I can about the story told… and listen to the music to the point of exhaustion. I accurately avoid pictures of other productions by other directors and other costume designers, so I can avoid being influenced as much as possible. This Nabucco made no exception.

Verdi, Nabucco, directed by Stefano Ricci, costumes by Gianluca Sbicca – Festival Verdi 2019

And how did you approach the idea of Ricci and Forte?

Stefano and Gianni were very clear about the world they wanted to evoke in this Nabucco. They were clear  about the whole project: this has made my job easy. I embraced their ideas unconditionally because I think the director leads the way and I can create costumes by following this lead. I have never had any doubts or second thoughts. When I presented the costume project at the Teatro Regio in Parma, some saw my sketches for the underwear-clad chorus singing the famous Va pensiero and said: “Here in Parma they will surely boo you.” The answer was: “What’s the problem?” If the director’s project is strong, if the production is based on a clear concept, if the vision is unusual but consistent, then I think the show is going to be great. It may or may not be understood, appreciated or criticised, but it will still be a high-standard show, a show that won’t leave the audience unaffected. I’m a very lucky costume designer because I’ve worked with many different directors: if a show is strong, then it will never disappoint. Exactly as for this Nabucco.

Verdi, Nabucco, directed by Stefano Ricci, costumes by Gianluca Sbicca – Festival Verdi 2019

In this Nabucco production there are two primadonnas – Saioa Hernandez in the role of Abigaille and Annalisa Stroppa in the role of Fenena. Did you work with them to create their roles?

I usually try to do it, but this time I couldn’t: the project was presented very quickly for production-related reasons. Thankfully everything went well and both artists were happy of their costumes and of how they looked on stage. Saioa confessed she wanted to buy all her costumes! The best compliment ever. In any case, I’ve been lucky: both are wonderful artists and designing their costumes has been a pleasure. Now that I know them well, next time I’ll try to improve. Getting to know all the cast before starting to work on a new production would be awesome (we could share ideas and doubts), but unfortunately it never happens.

What do you think is the future of opera?

I believe it’s an art which will take you through the upcoming decades, despite the current conditions of opera in Italy. It’s so rooted in our DNA that I don’t think it will disappear any time soon. Sure, the distance between the younger generations and the audience that usually attends an opera performance cannot be denied. It’s undeniable that young people have progressively moved away from theatres. All the events that try to bring people in front of a stage are commendable but I am afraid they won’t be enough. We’re at a point in which investing money and resources in this field is fundamental to keep skilled jobs and theatres alive. Our government must understand that our theatre tradition is admired and envied all over the world. They need to invest in it! Unfortunately, today it looks like only cutting funds is important. I often read articles lamenting the “visual richness” of old productions. Well, a criticism simply out of time. Do these people know that what Zeffirelli could spend on one costume is probably the budget I have for the whole chorus? Sure, many resources have been squandered and opera theatres often have a hand in this, but this doesn’t mean they should be closed. On the contrary, they should be made modern, changed, helped, but not forced to close.

There’s a theatre in almost every Italian city and this must mean something, right? It’s a language that’s part of our traditional culture and we’re so good at speaking it. Let me say as Donald Trump said: “Make opera great again!”.

Photos: Roberto Ricci, Quim Llenas/Cover/Getty Images

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