Opera is one of the most glamorous artforms. The romance! The soaring voices! The ornate operahouses! And the costumes. Oh, the costumes. The Canadian Opera Company’s production of La Bohème—one of the world’s most popular operas—is on now at the Four Seasons Centre until October 30. It’s the story of a group of wild bohemians and their struggling-artist antics in Paris (i.e., 19th-century hipsters), including the romantic poet, Rodolfo; the brash painter, Marcello; the shy seamstress, Mimi; and saucy singer, Musetta. (The plot sound familiar? It’s the work on which long-running musical, Rent, is based). FLARE chatted with set and costume designer David Farley about bringing the bohemian excess to life on stage—and why La Bohème is so beloved.
FLARE: Why do you think La Bohème has a reputation of being the world’s most popular opera?
David Farley: It’s one of those great love stories, and it’s very accessible. It’s not very long, either, which makes it a lot easier to digest, and the music is so emotionally charged. It’s a very simple love story with a nice mix of playfulness, sincerity and conflict.
FLARE: Did you look at previous productions for inspiration?
DF: I had never seen a production of La Bohème! I was only responding to the material, the libretto and the original book. Sometimes in key pivotal productions, an audience really loves a moment that is not in the script or libretto, so I think it’s important to approach a piece with a fresh pair of eyes. This is probably the most interesting opera I’ve worked on it in terms of scale, the quantity of costumes and the [creative] freedom.
FLARE: What is the difference between doing costume and set design for a play and an opera?
DF: The biggest difference visually is the size of the space. [With this opera] you have a 50-foot-wide proscenium arch and orchestra pit void which puts you 20 feet away from the stage, so you have to be bolder to make a visual impact.
FLARE: How did you decide whether to keep it a period piece or adapt it for a contemporary audience?
DF: Director John Caird and I decided that you can’t change a opera; you can tweak a few words here and there in a play, but a libretto and score are like the bible and you can’t mess with that. Rather than have it set when the book was written in the 1850s, we decided to set it in the 1890s, when the actual opera was written. It was a much prettier period, fashion-wise: there was a nice development of the bustle, you were rid of the britches and the big lamb chop sleeves had not come into style yet.
FLARE: Where did you look for inspiration?
DF: A lot of the reference and research material was drawn from the photographs of Eugene Atget, a turn-of-the-century Parisian photographer. He was scared that Paris was changing and wanted to capture what it felt like, so he went around and photographed anything and everything. You can see in these photos how the garments were actually worn compared to the fashion plates of the period. We referenced these photos for props as well. We took this very real backbone then added this kind of painterly layer so that it felt like the world captured through Marcello’s sketchbook. The aesthetic of the set is quite abstract, and is created from a collection of canvasses and paintings. Since the set was abstract, we wanted to keep anything else very true to the period.
FLARE: Can you tell us a bit about each character’s look and which piece was your favorite?
DF: My favorite piece is the one Musetta enters in, the pink dress. She had to dress up to persuade rich men to buy fabulous things for her so she has a flirty, playful nature to her. A lot of pleating in this outfit in particular and a wonderful piled bustle that provided great movement.
Mimi’s look was the hardest because she’s supposed to be 18 and a little waif who is fading away. None of our performers would ever be that young, so you try and make them look young and vulnerable. Mimi’s skirts are ankle length, fairly short for the period, which is a trick to make her look younger. We made her a bit tomboyish with a little vest and much simpler clothing. As she becomes more ill towards the end of the show, the colours become more bleached out.
Marcello was easier to design for as he wears a painter’s smock, which is basically the garment he lives in. There is a roughness about him.
Rodolfo is a little scruffy, but he can tidy himself up when Mimi appears. There are elements of his wardrobe that are quite stylish on their own, but paired in a way that makes him look less put together.
I wanted to keep their status consistent. In terms of the chorus, high-sheen clothing was used for the wealthier people, and more textured linens and wools for the peasantry folk.