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A Much-Desired Carmen

28 FEB 2012

published in: Opera

Gabrielle Dalton (Costume Design)

Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen is not only one of the most-performed, but also one of the most popular operas on the Salzburg program this coming summer. Gabrielle Dalton, the costume designer for this co-production with the Easter Festival, has been coming to Salzburg regularly during the past months to prepare the production. She recently talked to us about her work.

Gabrielle Dalton studied Dramatic Art at Middlesex Polytechnic Ivy House – London University. For 20 years, the successful Englishwoman has been responsible for opera costumes at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, the Opera Pacific / California and at the Royal Opera House, among others. At Opera North, she already created costumes for Carmen in 2011. “This opera – which is among the most-performed, subject to preconceived notions and very visual – presents a special challenge for a costume designer. Of course, the Salzburg Carmen will be quite different – not only because of the cooperation with Aletta Collins. But it is a great advantage for me to know the characters so well already, even if many things will be viewed from a different perspective.”

For example, the director has been thinking especially about the question why the beginning of the opera features so many soldiers. Even if the libretto is set in Seville circa 1820, it makes sense to her to have the production set during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. “The war did not only divide Spanish society as a whole, but even individual families. Enemy images were created or revived, old orders destroyed and new ones established. I think that this social dynamic is very helpful in telling the story of Carmen. Thus, the presence of the soldiers in Act I is easier to understand if one assumes that the cigarette factory was placed under military control, and many women, including Carmen, were made to work there. The gypsies that play such an important role in Carmen are part of this society. However, because everything is in flux, there are certain free spaces which they, as outsiders, exploit in their own interest,” Aletta Collins said in an interview with Peter Blaha.

The first cooperation between Gabrielle Dalton and the stage director took place in 2004, when they worked on The Barber of Seville at the Savoy Opera in London. However, the two met years earlier, when Dalton assisted a director who was also responsible for the costumes, and whose assistant was Aletta Collins. Ever since, the two may not have formed a permanent leading team, but have worked together again and again.

To Aletta Collins, who is a dancer, choreographer and artistic director of her own dance company, of course dance plays an important role when she directs an opera. Even if there are no ballet divertissements interrupting the narrative, in the style of grand opera, choreographed movements form an integral part of the action. Thus, a group of 15 dancers appears as Carmen’s shadow – a special challenge for the design and execution of the costumes. When we met in Salzburg, however, Dalton seemed entirely relaxed, even though she admits that she gets “stage fright at the latest when the final rehearsals begin”. Small wonder, as Carmen will involve about 500 costumes, necessitating rapid changes in the backstage area. All this must be taken into consideration when designing the costumes, in order to ensure that the performance can go off without a hitch, despite the hectic pace.

“It is a special challenge for me that in Carmen, the focus is on an enormously strong, female figure. Magdalena Kožená is not a typical Carmen, although that is exactly what I find especially intriguing. The audience will be surprised at how we present her.” This production will definitely not be a cliché-loaded Carmen. Over months, Dalton collected photographs and associations pertaining to this period, using many sources. She was able to obtain photographic material from the 1930s and has conducted historic research in Spain, traveling to the country and visiting a bullfighting arena for the opera’s last act. “I also looked at vintage clothes from the 1930s. Of course, a lot of them have to be re-tailored, as the original materials have become brittle.”

The production has its Salzburg Festival premiere on August 14, 2012. All performances of Carmen at the Salzburg Festival in August 2012 are already sold out. There are still some tickets remaining for the Carmen performance in the second cycle of the Salzburg Easter Festival.