Opera week is coming to town and at the Sarjeant Gallery six exquisite gowns from La Boheme are on show. The costumes are for female roles to coincide with the Gallery's exhibition 125: Celebrating Women from the Collection. This year the New Zealand Opera School also celebrates its 25th year.
An all time favourite, the opera by Giacomo Puccini tells of the romance between an impoverished poet, Rodolfo and Mimi, a shy seamstress. Their love, which begins one Christmas Eve in Paris in the 1830s, ends tragically when Mimi dies of consumption (tuberculosis).
The pathos is offset by the lighthearted comedy of the relationship between Musetta, a vivacious singer, and her painter beau, Marcello. Café and street scenes evoke the ambience of Parisian working-class life in an opera that was part of the "verisimo" or realist style.
Elizabeth Whiting designed the costumes for the 2018 production performed by the NZ Opera. She says the costumes, based on paintings of Paris in the late 1800's, create a bohemian world, which would also be recognisable today.
"The overall theme in terms of costume design is Tubercular Chic! The opera is set loosely at the end of the 19th century when tuberculosis was rampant and the fashionable look was pale face, flushed cheeks and large dark eyes. So the look for all the cast and chorus had this slightly gothic feel," Whiting says.
The costumes and personal styling of the main protagonists, Mimi and Musetta, reflect their different personalities and individual development. Musetta's costumes follow her journey from "good time girl" to poor singing teacher living for love to that of a more mature, wiser, kinder woman.
"Mimi's costumes echo the progression of her illness with just a hint of the red in the hem of her dress in Act1 right through to a full red dress in her Act4 dying scene."
Whiting usually begins the practical, reading and research side of the design process about a year before the opera opens.
"The fun starts when the design team gets together with the director and brainstorms. I often take mood boards to this meeting, indicating what aspects of the piece I am thinking about in terms of design. Once the concept is fixed I will draw up the costume designs and often source the fabrics for the wardrobe team to work with."
She says the design must relate to the here and now for the audience to identify with the characters.
"For example, costumes can be total reproductions of period pieces but perhaps the colours should be chosen with the contemporary aesthetic in mind. My job as a costume designer is to facilitate the story telling and make it easy for the audience to identify the types of people they are observing."
Donald Trott, the New Zealand Opera School's Executive Chairman and founder is thrilled to see the costumes at the Sarjeant.
"When I see these costumes in the gallery and I know the design and have seen the design presentations to us and then to the cast, and have seen them on stage, I feel quite emotional about it because I know the work that has gone into them."
Trott, who has played the character of Alcindoro, notes the sensitivity of the male characters towards the women and the strength of the female roles, particularly that of Musetta and the working class women.
"All the villagers toing and froing in the café scene – they are aware of themselves – they are not meek. There is an attitude of "I am what I am and I'm doing a great job here however humble it might be."
He recommends listening to the duet between Rodolfo and Mimi, "Lovely Maid in the Moonlight," as they leave the garret at the end of Act1.
"It is so beautiful. They have left the room and the stage is empty but you hear the lovely soprano and tenor voices fading away in the distance, high notes way, way up there."
He says the Royal Wanganui Opera house; the residential facilities of Wanganui Collegiate and the support of locals make Whanganui the ideal place for the New Zealand Opera School.
A highlight of the 25th celebration will be a concert on the river, weather permitting.
"But our first responsibility is to the singers who have been accepted to come here, to work hard and develop their talent."