Chorus Costumes from Fitting to Finale

Spotlight on Roberto Devereux’s costumes designed by Moritz Junge

by Daniel Clark Smith

As we rehearse on stage for the premiere of Sir David McVicar’s Metropolitan Opera production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux on Mar 24th, 2016, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the importance of costumes and costume designers in opera. Moritz Junge, the designer of the beautiful costumes you see here made his Met Opera debut in McVicar’s recent production of Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci. He has shared with us some photos of the trim and baubles used to decorate these Jacobean-era costumes for Roberto Devereux, as well as photos from our costume fittings for the opera, most of which occurred last fall.

Costumes play an important role in the life of a chorister at the Met. From our initial fittings to the final performances of an opera, costumes inform us as to who our characters are, and how we might act and move on stage. Some costumes are designed to individualize us, and some help to identify us as members of a particular community. In Cavalleria Rusticana, for example, we wear variations on a theme of black and white, the color scheme uniting us as the religious community in small-town Sicily. In Pagliacci, we play (perhaps) descendants of those same Sicilians, but more colorful and unique characters: from the local mayor, a policeman, a matron, a man-about-town, to the parish priest.

Opera costumes also give the chorus ideas about how our characters might move onstage. From the moment we put on a period costume, for example, the development of the physicality of an operatic character begins. Sir David McVicar, in one of our early rehearsals for Roberto Devereux, directed the chorus men to make our entrance, striding on with a “confident, masculine swagger”, and demonstrated a hand-on-hip courtier walk which to our 21st-Century eyes was anything but masculine! However, when we take into account the aristocratic court at the turn of the 17th-Century, and remember our costume fittings, that swagger becomes appropriate and begins to take on a life of its own.

There is nothing like wearing a costume that has been made to your exact measurements, and each one in its own way gives you ideas how to “play” onstage. Whether it’s a prisoner’s raincoat and handcuffs in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, an Old-West cowboy look in La Fanciulla del West, Cyrano de Bergerac’s swashbuckling hip boots, or Madama Butterfly’s multi-colored kimonos, we put on the costume, and our body mechanics immediately change. Pair that with a masterpiece from the operatic repertoire played by the world-class Met Orchestra, and with the superb stagecraft (lights, sets and stage direction) of the Met, then a specific scene starts to come to life.

There are challenges to wearing costumes in opera, though, such as the men’s multiple costume changes in Il Trovatore (back and forth from Manrico’s Gypsy followers to Di Luna’s soldiers and back again!). But our dressers work hard with us to make sure our quick changes go smoothly. We can sometimes feel the effects of a costume hours later, however, such as a heavy cape draped to one side. Thankfully, we have help from members of the wardrobe staff, who work to make sure we are as comfortable on stage as possible. It is, of course, the nature of opera that sometimes we stand on stage for an entire Act or two a night. But working in opera is what we’ve all dreamed of doing, and we are thankful to work with the greatest artists and artisans in the field. Nevertheless, when we join the chorus, we learn very quickly why one of the first bits of advice from colleagues is: “make sure your shoes fit well!”

Most costumes are rigged with 21st-Century conveniences such as velcro, zippers or button snaps, in order to make a quick change easier. Some, however, are designed with historical accuracy in mind, such as the costumes for Anna Bolena which have multiple laces, most of which are never seen by the audience. These are much more like historical clothing, rather than costumes.

Whether costumes serve as character study, guides to movement, or simply as a way to identify the chorus onstage, we are thankful that the Metropolitan Opera has such talented wardrobe and costume personnel. From designers like Moritz Junge and the costume staff who build the costumes, to the dressers and wardrobe staff who oversee them, we are in their debt. They make us look good onstage and we are eternally grateful!