Christian Lacroix is not only a world-famous fashion designer: he has also designed costumes for opera, theatre and ballet productions since the 1980s. For the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello – with costumes he designed – he explained in an interview with the Salzburg Easter Festival that working for the catwalk is not as different from the operatic stage as you might think.
You once said that it was a childhood ambition of yours to become a costume designer. Why did it end up taking a relatively long time for that dream to come true? As a child I was fascinated by every kind of performance, by everything that took me into worlds of make-believe and different eras: small-scale street theatre in the south of France, opera festivals in the summer, films, every kind of “show”, even television – all of that was in the 1960s. And I have always done a whole host of sketches, hundreds of sketchbooks full, from the time I was five years old to today – above all of costumes, far more than fashion. I was in my thirties when I designed my first costumes for the Opéra Comique in Paris and in Nantes. First I studied Latin, Greek and art history. I was 25, 26 or 27 years old when I abandoned my degree and, following advice from friends in the fashion industry, started to show my designs to people from fashion houses and theatres. Mr Lagerfeld really encouraged me and recommended me to his friends who worked in the theatre. But the first job that I got was as an intern at Hermès in 1978 or 1979. And then in 1981 I was employed as an artistic director at the house of Jean Patou, which had been founded in the 1920s. Everything went very quickly back then! A few seasons later a director, Jean-Luc Tardieu, saw my couture pieces on the television and wrote to me saying he could see in that collection that I had a future as a costume designer, so he asked me to design the costumes for his production of Edmond Rostand’s Chantecler in Nantes in 1986. Is it possible to compare the operatic stage with the catwalk? Ultimately, they are both a kind of “stage” with “performers”. In a way, yes. At the beginning of my career, fashion was eccentric, extravagant, inspired by stage heroines, stories and films, by literature, historic figures and paintings. Fashion should support people to be entirely themselves, by helping them realize their ideal physical appearance: they can then show their personality by presenting a character that they choose for themselves. In the 1980s and 1990s supermodels were even closer to being actors. They wanted to know the inspiration behind a collection and its intention and then they would behave on the catwalk in a way that reflected what the designers had told them. That’s no longer the case today, but it does seem to be making a comeback among a few young designers. You have designed costumes for several Verdi operas, but this is your first Otello. What’s your approach to the opera as a costume designer? I’m not a director. As a costume designer I listen for hours at a time to what the director – in this case Vincent Boussard – has in mind and wants from me. Perhaps I should dabble in being a director one day, too, with my own approach, but at the moment I simply contribute towards visualizing the directors’ concept and what he or she has imagined. Previously, your haute couture and your stage costumes were elegant, often fairly opulent and richly coloured. But in your designs for Otello dark colours, grey, silver, old gold dominate… Does a dark story need dark set design and costumes? Black is the truest colour; it is the sum of all other colours. It gives the impression of something sharp and dynamic, like an ink sketch. Only the first half of the opera will be that dark, the second will be in red, orange and fuchsia, with damask, velvet and brocade. We’re using lots of different high-end textiles. We’re combining old opera costumes and uniforms with high-quality taffeta, velvet and satin, some silver and gold lamé, some will be edged in neoprene to create graphic contours and combined with modern drapery for striking silhouettes. When designing the costumes, do you focus your attention on the characters of Otello, Desdemona, Iago etc. or to the actors playing those roles, i.e. José Cura, Dorothea Röschmann, Carlos Álvarez? That’s a mistake I made as a novice: to focus exclusively on the director’s point of view. For Così fan tutte, for example, the director wanted Fiordiligi, Dorabella, Ferrando and Guglielmo to be very young – quite modern young adults, half naked on an Italian beach. Then we realized that the cast neither was the right age nor had the right figure or appearance for that sort of costume. It would now be impossible for me to design costumes without knowing the cast. You have to have the contours, the style and the personality of the singer or actor in your mind’s eye before you can start working on the character they’re playing. That becomes difficult when you’re dealing with several casts or with stock plays that are acted by various artists over the years. Although the details of your operatic costumes are far less visible for the audience than those of your haute couture at a fashion show, you obviously work in a very detailed way for every individual person on the stage. Are you a stickler for details? When I’m asked about the difference between fashion and stage costumes, I have always answered that fashion can be inconspicuous from a distance but has to look exquisite, special and sophisticated from up close, whereas stage costumes have to be expressive, flamboyant and striking from a distance and require much less attention to detail. But I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can work for the best houses, like the Paris opera, the Comédie-Française and now in Salzburg, where the studios have the kinds of skills and abilities that mean they can work with the materials in the same way as for couture. As a result of that, I can design for the stage in exactly the same way as I have been used to doing for the catwalk and for salons. I think that’s something you can see from a distance – and it’s also much better for the artists on the stage.