There are many layers to an artist when preparing for an opera such as Bellini’s Norma. From studying the repertoire until you can no longer sing ‘Casta Diva’ to watching some of the most famous sopranos of all time perform the role you have been given to play. As for costume design, this may just be the icing on the cake. The amount of preparation that goes into making each character’s full production wardrobe is another world of its own and one that should not be overlooked.
My visit to the Canadian Opera Company’s costume department turned into a very inspiring experience as I had the opportunity to chat with the COC’s designer for Norma – Jessica Jahn. Based in New York City, Jahn was a professional dancer before making the career move as a designer.
A production that has already been performed both in San Francisco and Barcelona, she has been able to grow with her designs as well as with the artists performing in them before they make their premiere in Toronto next month.
So what was the thought process like before even diving into design mode?
“You have three goals as a costume designer,” says Jahn, “help tell the story through the costumes, make the performance comfortable, merge both of these together to achieve the final performance and storytelling experience”. In the case of Norma, the aesthetic goal was to create a fluid, cohesive colour palette that denoted a tribe or community. By looking the set design and productions from the past, and with so much to research, Jessica wanted to find one key fact or detail that would be the driving inspiration for her designs. Finally, you can’t help but also play the role of an anthropologist, historian, and psychologist – they all factor in.
Inspirations came from both tribal and native communities as well as runway looks from designers such as Alexander McQueen. Following in this direction, the entire cast of Norma represented a collective of people experiencing a deep story through costume. Tribal tattooing as shown on their foreheads and arms represented both historical and fantastical worlds colliding on stage.
Fabrics such as natural fibers, leathers, linen, raw silk and cotton moleskins were chosen complimenting organic and neutral tones that expressed both darkness and romance. “Collaborating with Sondra [Radvanovsky] was a bonus and something I find very important if you have the opportunity to work with the artists ahead of time. With so much experience, they are able to help guide you as they are the ones who will need to perform and change throughout a three-hour-or-so performance”.
A process that took almost a year and a half in the making, opera goers will not be disappointed.
For more information about the COC’s production of Norma visit coc.ca
Photo credits: Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma inNorma (San Francisco Opera, 2014), photo: Cory Weaver