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December 18, 2017
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Past glories: some of the costumes on display in the costume warehouse (Photograph courtesy of Brescia e Amisano © Teatro alla Scala).

Opera is a powerful experience, an immersive journey through music and theatre. Although music is opera's undisputed queen, beautifully crafted costumes can make the magic of a performance sparkle that much more brightly. These outfits can create a powerful atmosphere, convey emotion, highlight drama and, above all, tell a story without words.  

But how are the costumes conceived? Who designs them, and how long does it take to create dreams out of textile and fabric? I paid a visit to Ansaldo Workshops in Milan, where the costumes, sets and stage elements are produced for Teatro alla Scala's performances.

Stories to be told: a workshop's small army of
tailors at work (Photograph courtesy of
Brescia e Amisano © Teatro alla Scala).

A ten-minute metro ride away from Piazza della Scala sits a labyrinth of a building, located on a former industrial site. It is here, far removed from the elegance, luxury and prestige of the theatre, that the workshops are situated. From the outside, it is hard to believe that this is the cradle of exotic visions and adventures.

The building is divided into three pavilions. The Caramba pavilion is named after the alias used by costume designer Luigi Sapelli, who worked as La Scala's director of stage design from 1921 to 1936. The Caramba pavilion is home to the costumes used in the theatre's performances, and to the workshops that create them. Over 60,000 costumes are stored in its warehouse. Carmen, La Traviata, Aida - some of the world's most famous outfits lie asleep here, waiting to be called back to life for a new performance.

Cinzia Rosselli has been supervising the workshop for almost 22 years. Together with a team of 46 people, she manages the whole creative process, from mundane logistics all the way to a show's premiere. "It was a bit hard when I first started. I was a 25-year-old girl and hierarchy was a problem for a while," she recalls.

For the divine: Maria Callas' costume
for Don Carlo (Photograph courtesy of
Brescia e Amisano © Teatro alla Scala). 

Following the 2011 restoration of the theatre, the costume department was logistically divided into two sections: "One team works on site at the theatre and manages the costume changes during each performance. They are responsible for the costumes of the whole cast, including the main singers, the chorus and all dancers," Rosselli explains. An important task of this team is to help performers through quick costume changes during the show. The crew transforms a singer from peasant to queen in a matter of seconds. "They are also responsible for keeping all costume parts together and cataloguing them so that no piece is missing when the costume needs to be stored."

To aid in this, each costume and its various pieces are equipped with a label somewhere on it. "Each label carries the title of the opera, the role and the name of the performer wearing it. All of our costumes are unique pieces, customised to the actual size of the person who will wear them. Of course, we can still adjust them later, in case performers' sizes change in time."

The outfits in the Caramba pavilion warehouse reflect the theatre's deep-rooted history in Italy's opera scene. "Some of the costumes designed by Caramba are among the oldest in the collection and date back to 1924. At the moment, La Scala is playing Aida using some of the original 1963 costumes designed by Lila De Nobili, who worked with director Franco Zeffirelli for the occasion."

The first step in the creative process is always the cooperation between costume designers and directors, says Rosselli. Directors personally choose their costume designers in order to achieve the best synergy and create costumes that perfectly match their artistic vision. Costume designers then develop a sketch according to their director's guidelines and deliver it to the dressmaking workshop. "Sometimes the sketch is really basic; other times it comes with photographic documentation or technical instructions explaining the inspiration behind the project. Designers with a fashion background usually provide more technical details," continues Rosselli. "The first time you work with a new costume designer is the most complicated because you need to understand their ideas, language and nuances. Furthermore, you also need to create a relationship and personal synergy."  

So what is the difference between a costume and a fashion item? "A costume must tell the story of the character who is wearing it and relate to all other elements around it," Rosselli reveals. "It must interact with what is happening on stage, from the background to the action and the music. Fashion designers tend to forget about this and focus more on the beauty of the single item. Costumes must belong to the overall vision."

Where the magic happens: tailors at work on
samples in the dressmaking department (Photograph
courtesy of Brescia e Amisano © Teatro alla Scala).

In the dressmaking workshop, tailors are busy creating trial versions and assembling the different parts of final costumes. They are divided between male and female sections because, as Rosselli explains, "a female hand is better at working on a woman's costume while men's costumes are cut better by male hands."

Behind every final costume is a multi-layered process. "Before the fabrics chosen for the final costumes are cut into shape, we make a trial on linen. This allows us to make all corrections on this sample without wasting materials. After that, a first prototype is made with the materials selected for the final version and then, if all is fine, the actual costume is realised."

Rosselli is aware that spectators are usually too busy enjoying the opera to think about the technicalities backstage. "A very simple costume can take about twelve hours to make and a more elaborate one about forty-eight hours. In an ideal situation, it should take about three months to complete all the costumes for a single performance, but in reality a month and a half is already a generous timeline."

A work of precision: all costumes are handmade
and require skill, time and dedication
(Photograph courtesy of Brescia e Amisano
© Teatro alla Scala).

After decades surrounded by these costumes, Rosselli finds it hard to pick a favourite. "It's been a long time now and I have seen so many, but when I started I was very excited to work with Carla Fracci. [The experience] helped me understand how important it is for all elements of the costume to be in harmony with performers, to allow them to move freely and give their best on stage," she says with a hint of nostalgia. "Times are much more hectic nowadays and even performers pay less attention to the quality and precision of the costumes. It is a pity there is less time to create a relationship between performers and the people working at the costume department. But I guess it is a result of the speed our lives have assumed these days."

She might be right. But even offstage, the magic of these costumes still glitters as they lie asleep in this warehouse, awaiting a new generation of dreamers to enchant. 

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