La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

The Nose

in numbers

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
5 min.

Every opera has its challenges, every production its issues. Guided by the madness that characterizes Dimitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, Àlex Ollé (La Fura dels Baus) brings La Monnaie’s season to a close with an exuberant, wild and unrestrained opera… Behind the scenes, his staging requires our teams to muster all their expertise and ingenuity to manage the sheer number of elements that form the identity of the production. A story of numbers, from the pit to the workshops…

13 soloists and 48 chorus members

Everything emanates from the libretto. The Nose is a satirical fable whose numerous scenes are condensed into two hours of music. While following the misadventures of Platon Kuzmich Kovalyov as he goes in search of his nose, which has decided to live a life of its own, one cannot ignore the opera’s gallery of no fewer than eighty characters and their incessant comings and goings. In our production, thirteen soloists share forty ‘principal’ roles, while the others are entrusted to a large choral ensemble consisting of ten sopranos, ten altos, thirteen tenors, seven baritones and eight basses.

190 looks

Drawing on this large cast, Àlex Ollé opted for an energetic, surreal mise en scène in which the stage is constantly invaded by highly colourful characters. This profusion of personae, involving innumerable costumes – and costume changes (sometimes simply the addition or removal of an item of clothing) – affords an ensemble of 190 different looks with most of the singers and chorus members donning several costumes during the course of the show.

Inspirational mood board for the costume design
Inspirational mood board for the costume design © Thomas Van Deursen

Created in Copenhagen, this production arrived at La Monnaie towards the end of March. As the show had been staged in Danish and with a different cast, the labelling of the costumes took some untangling. This involved meticulously going through the costumes, selecting and allocating them anew for the Brussels cast. Some of the garments required alteration, particularly when they had been worn months earlier by three or four different-sized people. Then there were the changes requested by the costume designer, who wanted to dispense with certain silhouettes in favour of others even more extravagant in appearance, fashioned from garments unearthed from our reserves or purchased secondhand. Eventually all the garments were rightfully allocated and after more measuring and a series of fittings, the costumes requiring an update were sent to the workshops, mainly to give some a slightly dirty, urban look.

To avoid any wardrobe glitches during the show, a precise inventory of the costumes has to be drawn up in collaboration with the wardrobe department. For the production’s fifteen dressers, the only real difficulty lies in the sheer number of dressing-room and quick off-stage changes (which have to be completed in under five minutes), especially as the teams do not have the advantage of an interval as they did in the Copenhagen version.In addition, the way the costume changes are organized has been completely revised to accommodate the differences between the two casts. Moreover, these changes will have to be accomplished at a sustained pace in the narrow backstage area packed with people and props (see below).

A silhouette is not complete without makeup. Here, too, it is important to underline the sheer number of transformations required. In the dressing rooms and directly backstage, the teams will be ready to modify the singers’ faces with the aid of numerous wigs and makeup retouches.

The production also requires a huge number of false noses. While it was possible to salvage some of those inherited from Copenhagen (for use mainly in rehearsals), new ones had to be made too. A plaster cast similar to those made in hospitals was applied to the nose of each member of the cast. Based on this ‘negative’ mould, another ‘positive’ mould was modelled in plaster, which would serve as a base for the elongated false noses made of silicone. It takes approximately four days to make three noses. By the end of the performances, the soloists will have worn between 140 and 150 false noses.

750 props and a gigantic puzzle

A ‘prop’ is defined as anything used by the cast members, including small objects and imposing structures, as well as all the special effects involved in staging the production (blood bags, pyrotechnics, etc.). According to this definition, our production of The Nose requires no fewer than 750 props, including a bed on wheels, a hair salon, a spiral staircase, a shower, suitcases, barriers, wheelchairs, desks, benches, doughnuts, signs and tents.

The diversity of the items involved is only matched by their volume. The number of props is such that the layout of the Salle Malibran, where the first rehearsals of our operas are always held, had to be modified. Usually the conditions in which the performance will take place are reproduced there, including the space provided backstage. Here, the distribution of the props between courtyard and garden, backstage and even the flies proved particularly tricky, and some elements will have to be kept in the neighbouring stage lift, which will remain open and accessible throughout the performance.

Left: Entrance Hall of the Danish National Bank, right: scenography element for 'The Nose'
Left: Entrance Hall of the Danish National Bank, right: scenography element for 'The Nose'

The main source of inspiration for the stage set is the monumental entrance to the Danmarks Nationalbank, designed by architect Arne Jacobsen in the 1970s. Consisting of grey, twelve-metre-high walls, here this smooth surface is gradually invaded by an abstract metallic cloud, not dissimilar to the one that adorns the façade of the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona. In this production, the loss of the nose is at the heart of a grotesque nightmare. The purpose of the vast structure imagined by Àlex Ollé and set designer Alfons Flores is to bring to life the protagonist’s dreamlike visions with the help of clever lighting effects necessitating the use of sixty projectors, which create different shapes (a busy street, slogans, a cathedral, faces, etc.) inside the cloud. The latter is made up of a veritable metal jigsaw puzzle consisting of 246 pieces spread over five horizontal friezes measuring eight metres wide, and four, eight-metre-high vertical curtains.

Sorting out, arranging, labelling, building and dividing up the available space requires a great deal of organization and also collaboration between the various teams on stage and in the dressing rooms, plans, floor markings, etc. This is the ballet meticulously executed by some one hundred people backstage to bring the chaotic madness of The Nose to life on stage.