La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

The Glamour and the Labour

The costumes for Bastarda

Jacques Peeters
Reading time
4 min.

When creating an opera production, nothing is left to chance. Literally everything has to be thought through, every character, every movement, every note, every colour or detail. The dazzling costumes for Bastarda are the latest proof that such a creation process takes an enormous amount of time, care and deliberation. An interview with designer Petra Reinhardt and Regine Becker, head of the La Monnaie costume department.

Petra Reinhardt's role is not limited to just costumes. She is also responsible the wigs, headwear, make-up and footwear. After initially presenting her designs in late 2020, followed by a thorough budget study and planning process, work finally began the following spring. In total, Bastarda counts no fewer than 110 different costumes, 60 pairs of shoes and 43 wigs, along with a wide range of headwear, jewellery and decorative pieces. All of this individually made by hand in La Monnaie's costumes department. An unbelievable tour de force!

The amount of time between the designs being approved and opening night was about 2.5 years, an unusually long period. Even though other productions were being worked on at the same time, no other opera has endured such a long production period. The main reason behind this was not the complexity of the costumes themselves, rather the onset of the recent pandemic. With the continuous stream of colleagues reporting sick, this inevitably led to delays in the production process. Needless to say, working from home was not an option. After all, tailors and seamstresses work behind industrial sewing machines, not screens.

When it came to Bastarda, these were some of the most complex costumes La Monnaie's costumes department had worked on for some decades, not least due to their extraordinary level of detail. No bulk rolls of fabric or serial production here, rather extremely patient and time-consuming customisation of pleats, seams, embellishments, reinforcements and constructions. And to think that most of these details remain invisible to the naked eye. Indeed, some of the women's costumes are supported by sometimes very large and inventive constructions. The impressive costumes themselves represent ‘only’ the outer layer. For this production, you can almost think of the costumes as sculptures, their invisible construction being at least as important as their outer shells, with their rich, colourful fabrics and lavish decoration. And that doesn't just go for the costumes. At the very end of the opera, we see Elizabeth literally deconstruct her final wig, thereby representing the decline of her beauty and power. This wig consists of carefully prepared strands of hair, which she proceeds to pull from her head piece by piece. No wonder this wig became known as the ‘Lego wig’ by its creators.

historically informed

At first glance, the costumes in Bastarda look like replicas of historic costumes from 16th-century English court fashion, with its hooped skirts, puffed sleeves and bold colour contrasts. This is only partly true. While they may take inspiration from it, the costumes are certainly not intended to act as historical reconstructions on stage. Petra Reinhardt accentuates, distorts and enlarges the original Elizabethan stylistic features more according to the characters' individual traits: ‘You would think that, dramaturgically, a costume isn't so important, or at least less so than the action or the music. However, with this production, the costumes are very much part of the story and overall concept. Because the set design is quite neutral and austere, you can almost perceive the contrasting, colourful costumes as the houses the characters live in, their domain or even their personality.’ We see this especially with the development of the costume for Enrico's / King Henry VIII, which gradually expands from its normal size during the performance to grotesque, almost absurd proportions.

With the women's costumes, in turn, we can observe techniques intended to accentuate different variations of the female form. For example, a 16th-century farthingale line comprises a cushion worn around the hips. Attached to this cushion are hoops, mostly made from baleen or willow branches. So-called panniers (18th century) then accentuate the hips in a rather exaggerated fashion by widening the skirt, especially at the sides. And finally, we have the hoop skirt, the 19th-century version of the farthingale line, only much wider.

practical requirements

The big departure from the original historical costumes is that the Bastarda theatre costumes need to not only look beautiful and impressive, but also allow for the singers to move around freely while wearing them. They shouldn't be too heavy, with the singers also needing to be able to sometimes make quick costume changes. In addition, they should not in any way interfere with the action, and especially the singing. For this reason, a list of things not to do while wearing these costumes was drawn up especially for the director. This includes not walking too fast, lying down, sitting down, dressing and undressing too quickly. Due to these limitations, we run into a lot of elementary, spatial problems, things you wouldn't necessarily think about as an audience member. For example, most of the women's costumes are so big and wide that, while the singers might be able to change within the confines of their dressing room, they would find it impossible to then leave said dressing room and get to the stage. To make matters worse, the latter happens to be located an entire floor below. The backstage corridors and stairs are simply too narrow! To get around this problem, specially made changing cubicles were commissioned, to be located both onstage and, unusually, also in the public areas. And then there are costumes, or shall we say constructions, so large that they are actually fitted with invisible wheels, with this being the only way the singer is able to move somewhat elegantly across the stage.

These requirements and constraints call for solutions and techniques that can only be achieved through endless trial and error, brainstorming and invention. Add to this the significant time pressures, along with the inevitable financial constraints, and it should be evident that a project of this magnitude can only succeed with good planning, teamwork and out-of-the-box thinking. As a result, it is plain to see that Petra Reinhardt is absolutely delighted with the high standard of work achieved inside La Monnaie's costumes department, absolutely full of praise for the skilled professionals who go above and beyond to make it all work. It is a testament to her team’s creative thinking, brainstorming and teamwork. The words ‘impossible’ or ‘it can't be done’ are simply not part of this theatre’s vocabulary.