Opera La Calisto

Baroque opera
“La Calisto”, Cavalli, 1651
Haymarket Opera Company, Chicago, IL, USA – May 2016

Stage director : Sarah Edgar
Musical director : Craig Trompeter
Costume designer : Meriem Bahri
Set designer : Zuleyka Benitez
Light designer : Lindsey Lyddan
Photographers : Charles Osgood – Topher Alexander

Meriem Bahri’s costumes once again are spectacularly striking, especially the divine raiment of Giove, Giunone, and Diana, which mix classical and baroque styles."

Barnaby Hugues, Stage and Cinema, May 8, 2016

[...] charming production by Haymarket design stalwarts Sarah Edgar, Meriem Bahri, Zuleyka V. Benitez and Lindsey Lyddan [...] Bahri's ornate costumes included plumed headgear for the gods, a red velvet tunic for Endimione and goat-fleece pants for the satyrs."

John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2016

WHAT IS YOUR GENERAL PROCESS FOR DESIGNING?

When designing costumes, I collect clues from different sources, like fashion books focusing on the decade of interest, museum collections of paintings and academic research about opera costumes which include period costume sketches. After immersing myself in all this information, I play with the shapes and colors while deciding what message I want the costumes to accentuate. For instance, in Cavalli’s La Calisto, the nymphs’ dresses are based on the same pattern, but there are differences in the cut and colors that go with the different levels of chastity and frivolity carried by each of them. In parallel, I choose the color palette according to the specific time period: which shades were in vogue when and where the opera was first presented. Sometimes characters dictate specific colors because they follow precise codes known by the audiences of the 1700s and 1800s. Of course, the libretto is also a primary source of inspiration; how the characters describe each other helps to point out the main characteristics that should be found in the costumes, hair or masks. As an example, Diana is the goddess of the moon, hunt and chastity; the vocabulary found in the lyrics of this opera highlight her celestial facet, through her relation with Endimione (shepherd and astronomer) as well as through the mouths of other characters.

WHAT IS PARTICULAR ABOUT DESIGNING FOR HAYMARKET OPERA COMPANY?

HOC’s aim is to restore little-known works from the 17th and 18th centuries, always in the spirit of historical reconstruction. Everyone in the team is very involved on this aspect. For La Calisto, our general director, Craig Trompeter, shared with us an academic work written by Jennifer Williams Brown from Grinnell College about how the opera was composed and first performed. It was an inspiring document for the costumes and also for sets, staging and music. For instance, this research showed that “Giove as Diana” was most likely sung by the soprano who played Diana and not Giove, baritone, disguised as Diana, as it could have been believed. In terms of costumes, the design work is not about just having “baroque” costumes, which sometimes can be seen, wrongly, as only big dresses and big wigs. I try to be true to the fashions in style at the time of each opera’s premiere, and thus every Haymarket Opera production has costumes that can be very different from the previous ones, as the trends and tastes changed regularly through our two centuries of interest. It’s also important to have in mind that the costumes for HOC’s shows are not showing what people were wearing everyday in the 1650s (in the case of La Calisto) but what they were wearing on stage at that time. How did they represent mythological gods or shepherds? When did they use masks? What was supposed to be sensual, funny, manly or romantic? Did they design the costumes to be realistic? It’s very interesting to immerse myself in an aesthetic from a different era and to challenge the visual expectations of today’s audiences.