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Opera and Costume at the “Vestiaire de Divas” Exhibition

Figures like Maria Callas are on display in the “Vestiaire de Divas” exhibition at the National Center for Stage Costumes in Moulins, France.

PARIS — The costumes adorning opera’s emblematic figures like Maria Callas are on display in the “Vestiaire de Divas” exhibition at the National Center for Stage Costumes in Moulins, France.

The show includes a Grecian gown paired with a red velvet cape designed by Marcel Escoffier that Callas wore in Vincenzo Bellini’s “Norma” in 1964.

“The costume was originally to be conceived in crinoline after the Napoleon III Empire, but Callas wanted a more simple line for the dress,” says Delphine Pinasa, curator of the exhibition and the museum’s delegate director. “The cape was very heavy and had to be carried like a wedding train.”

“Each piece has a history,” continues couturier Maurizio Galante, who was responsible for the exhibit’s scenography.

Many of the items on display are from the museum’s reserves. However, Callas’ costume from the film “Medea” had never before left the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.

Designed by Luchino Visconti’s costumer, Piero Tosi, for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s production, the bejeweled costume is one of the exhibition’s highlights.

“The costume was made by the atelier Tirelli [Costumi] in Italy. It was simple fabric that was dyed and then placed in an oven. All the folds were done by hand,” says Pinasa.

Indeed not all of the divas’ opulent costumes made of rich reels of fabric were the most comfortable. For instance, the costume worn by Monserrat Caballé in Puccini’s “Turandot,” designed by Jacques Dupont, included 5.9-inch, gold-colored nails and a 42.6-foot-long coat that had to be carried for the singer due to its weight. Nevertheless, it was adored.

“She loved the costume and even wanted to buy it,” enthuses Pinasa.

Almost 100 costumes and accessories are on display in “Vestiaire de Divas.” Among the earliest pieces showcased is one worn in 1872 by Sarah Bernhardt as the Queen in Victor Hugo’s “Ruy Blas.” Contemporary designers who have contributed to the operatic genre are also represented, including Frank Sorbier and Anthony Powel. “Today, it is more about the image of the show and before it was about the details,” says Galante.

“There is a fashion to simplify now; lace is a little passé,” says Pinasa, adding that Régine Crespin’s costume from the Fifties with all its lace and jewelry underlines what represents the traditional image of an opera diva. “The costume is symbolic — in its decoration and in volume and its feeling of being too much.” The exhibition was conceived in three parts: The first will take the form of a private loge as found in a theater. There, a large assembly of ornaments, such as lace fans and makeup cases, are on display.

The second area is more of a public space with costumes on mannequins in eight large glass cases, plus video footage and recordings of the opera singers in their celebrated roles. The final part of the exhibition includes a projection of French singer Dalida’s performances along with several of her costumes.

“It’s about duality, the private life and the public life,” says Galante of the show. For his own spring couture collection, Galante called on opera singer June Anderson to wear his designs, and three of them will be on display in the exhibition.

The National Center for Stage Costumes, housed in an 18th-century building, was originally used to store arms, but now boasts a collection of some 9,000 costumes donated by the National Opera of Paris, the Comédie Française and the National Library of France.

For his next act, Galante will design contemporary costumes for a Japanese opera penned by Yukio Mishima to be performed at the Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, in June. Galante is also working on a retrospective to take place in Saint Etienne, France, in October, which will chronicle his and Tal Lancman’s careers as artistic collaborators.

“Vestiaire de Divas” runs through Dec. 31.


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