Opera Warhorses

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Dressing Renée Fleming’s Violetta: A Conversation with John Pascoe, Part 7

March 18th, 2015

This continues the series of conversations that I have had with British opera director John Pascoe. This is the seventh part of the conversation. This part follows: Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 6.



[Below: Director John Pascoe; resized image of a personal 2014 photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: In reflecting on our discussions about the physical productions of operas that you conceived, you spoke of many process, such as concept rendering, building of set models, creating costume designs, and other requirements of a new opera production. My guess is that we in the opera audience have very little idea of what the steps might have been to create the sets and costumes for the opera we are witnessing.

You were active in creating productions in the 1980s and continue to do so in this second decade of the 21st century. May I ask you a few questions about these processes?

JP: Please do!

Wm: Would it be possible to take some specific examples of your designs for sets and for costumes and explain the steps you took to create them?

JP: What do you think about using different examples of the design process? One which I feel may be of interest to readers, would be to describe the process of designing new costumes in 2003 for my long time colleague and dear friend – the super star Renée Fleming, for her first Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata”.

Wm: I suspect most of us who attend opera have little idea of what goes into the process of designing and producing the costumes the singers and chorus members wear. I would like to learn about how you design for an entire production.

But first, let’s follow your suggestion and discuss the process for redesigning costumes for Mme. Fleming, who was to be the lead artist in an established production for which costumes had already been created by another designer.

What was the lead-time that you required (or were allowed) to design a principal costume for a popular opera singer such as Fleming?

JP: At this time I had already created six productions and many concert gowns for Renée Fleming.

[Below: Renée Fleming, wearing a John Pascoe concert gown; edited image of an Andrew Eccles photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


The New York Met invited Renée to sing her first Met Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in 2003 in the opulent Franco Zeffirelli production.  The decision was made, about a year in advance of the opening night – to ask me to design new Violetta costumes for her.

So following this invitation, Jo Volpe (the Met’s General Manager at that time), Renée and I sat together in a dress rehearsal of a Met revival of the “La Traviata” production to understand in detail what Maestro Zeffirelli had created.

Wm: I’m aware that revivals provide an opportunity to change details in a production. Obviously, the fact that all of you were discussing a particular costume suggests that you were not entirely satisfied with Zeffirelli’s original creation in what was regarded as a classic production.

JP: I think that the importance of Renée Fleming assuming this pivotal role indicated to everyone within the Met’s management that a new series of gowns were required to mark this important event, and this was in combination with the fact that it was general assumed within the company that the great Maestro (Franco Zeffirelli perhaps hadn’t arrived at his final decision on the first act costumes for Violetta.

So I was asked to design a new series of costumes to both adjust this reality and also honor Renée’s presence in the role.

Clearly, an historically accurate approach was vital, as well as one that allowed me to find the precise lines and proportions that would show Renée at her highly glamorous best.

Once Mr Volpe, Renée and I had met it was clear to all of us that a classic, off-white gown in the first act would work:

Wm: Now that you were given the go ahead to create something that was historically accurate, what did you do?

JP: I started to design!  As you see in my first sketch design, seen below, my addition of black gloves and head dress for me added a sense of foreboding of Violetta’s mortality to the classic look, but this idea didn’t ‘stay’, as on reflection – I felt that it didn’t quite fit into the ‘look’ of the Zeffirelli production.

[Below: John Pascoe’s first sketches for Violetta’s first act gown; edited image, based on a John Pascoe costume design, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


I created three more versions of this gown before arriving at the final design  – see below.  Being a bit of a control freak, I tend to go somewhat over the top with designing details, but I simply find that it cuts down on confusion.

For the final version, I added blood red jewels at the center of the neck line to the classic white gown as a subtle reference to the drops of blood that characterize the illness that would finally take Violetta’s life.

[Below: John Pascoe’s final design for Violetta’s first act gown; edited image, courtesy of John Pascoe]


 Important elements of the costume, such as headdress and bodice, are supplemented with drawing of details, as seen below.

[Below: Details of the headdress and bodice; resized image of John Pascoe’s design, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: These drawings are quite impressive, but I suspect that the costume shop needs more information before they start making the costumes.

JP: Certainly! When the designs are agreed upon and all of the many details designed, one moves from creating images to actually taking decisions on what fabric to use, exactly what trim should be placed where, and precisely where we need to put that seam etc, etc etc.

[Below: another step in preparing the costume; resized image of a photograph of the first act bodice during its construction in the Met’s costume shop; image courtesy of John Pascoe.]


The neckline of Renée’s gown was very much inspired by two other important gowns related to the role: One that had excited Renée was Adrian’s superb costume designed for Greta Garbo in the 1936 film ‘Camille’, and of course the other was the highly important reference of Zeffirelli’s own designs was that worn by Teresa Stratas’ in the film version of “La Traviata” that he had already directed and designed.

So finally, in the image below, we can see Renée Fleming on stage with Ramón Vargas within the production.

[Below: Violetta (Renée Fleming, right) is courted by Alfredo (Ramón Vargas, left) in a 2003 performance of Verdi’s “La Traviata” at the New York Met; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: What did Violetta wear in her country villa in the first scene of Act II?

JP: The gown in the Act II Scene I where Violetta is living in the country with Alfredo offers specific challenges. For me it was vital that she felt properly ‘at home’ within the dream world of country living that Franco Zeffirelli had created for this idyllic phase of Violetta’s relationship with Alfredo,.

Importantly one, that showed a maximum sense of that over-used word ‘class’.

[Below:John Pascoe’s designs for Violetta’s Act II costume; resized image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]

PASCOE 7 2ND ACT #8 (400)

As her life as a courtesan was very definitely behind her, I designed a gown that would take it’s principal colors from those of her country home as shown in Franco’s charming set, and offer a maximum level of elegance without feeling too “dressy”.

Below we see Renée Fleming in Act II Scene I on stage at the Met.

[Below: Violetta (Renée Fleming) in Act II Scene I of the 2003 New York Met production of Verdi’s “La Traviata”; resized image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


However in the second scene of Act II at Flora’s party it was absolutely clear to me that Violetta should be in black as she is virtually in mourning for the loss of Alfredo.

In order for the gown to fit into the environment of the Spanish-themed fancy dress party in Franco Zeffirelli’s famous Met production, clearly the gown needed to have details appropriate to the party’s theme.

Clearly, if one doesn’t design the costume details ahead of time, one is in for a huge amount of time being wasted, so I enjoy putting as much down on paper as possible. It just saves energy when one is working with the crafts persons to create the jewelry, tiara etc, as every possible solution can be measured for success against the specifics of the design detailing.

[Below: John Pascoe’s design for Violetta’s Act II Scene II gown; edited image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]

PASCOE 7 3RD ACT GOWN #11 (400)

But once the details are created one then has the fittings where the reality of what one is aiming at finally starts to present itself, this is the time where final adjustments happen. Does this line look good on the artist? Could it be better?

[Below: John Pascoe design of a “stomacher” for Violetta’s Act II Scene II gown; edited image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


I have found that ‘candid’ photographs at this stage are a great way of being able to see the costume as if it were – from a distance.

So I take photographs of the artist wearing the costume in order to enable me to then work in ‘Photoshop’ on the image to see how I could improve it.

[Below: Details of the accessories to Violetta’s gown; edited image of John Pascoe’s design, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Then I write notes on the image, “longer veil, lengthen this line”, “add jewel at front of head dress”, “make veil more transparent” etc.

As these costumes were being created especially for Renée, clearly I then showed her what I felt needed still to be improved as well as then of course communicating those decisions with the excellent Met’ opera costume staff.

[Below: a photograph of Renée Fleming in an early version of John Pascoe’s design for the Act II Scene II gown, with John Pascoe’s instructions to costume shop; edited image of a photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]

PASCOE7 IMAGE#15 Renée fitting Act II scii MET (400)

I’ve described the process by which the costumes for Renee Fleming’s Violetta took place through the final version worn onstage.

[Below: Violetta (Renée Fleming) appears at Flora’s party in Act II Scene II of the of a Los Angeles Opera production by Marta Domingo  of Verdi’s “La Traviata”; edited image, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: I think you’ve given me a good idea of the complexity of designing new costumes for an established production. In our next conversation, let’s return to the subject of designing an entire production, not only all of its costumes, but its sets as well.

JP: Certainly, the process is in some sense the same: First ideas, followed by creating the first images, then followed by sometimes endless adjustments. But it is clearly immensely more complicated when dealing with an entire production.

Wm: Two other questions. First, these costumes were being designed for the artist Mme. Fleming, so did and that she retain possession of them after the “La Traviata” run, or are they owned by the Met? Second, is there a place where an interested person can get prints of your designs?

JP:  The costumes very definitely remain the property of the Met opera and have a special value, as do all those costumes throughout the world designed for the great operatic stars.

For example, one of the great Italian costume collections, I have seen a veritable rag of a gown that is retained and valued purely because it was created for the great Maria Callas, while within the same magnificent collection (Fondazione Ceratelli) the magnificent costumes designed by Franco Zeffirelli for the great Plàcido Domingo as Otello hold a position of special honor, and justly so!

The designers responsible for them have frequently created stunningly beautiful designs that have been added to many prestigious collections.

I have been very flattered to have received many requests to buy either my designs themselves or indeed prints of them. So finally I have put a small ‘shop’ element onto my opera web site –  www.johnpascoe.com – where I am offering limited edition, archival quality prints of some of my most famous designs.

At the moment these are limited to those we have been discussing ref’ those I created for the worlds most loved Diva  – Renée Fleming (specifically in her 2003 Met “Traviata” that we have been discussing)  and those that I created for ‘my’ first Diva  – the great and deeply mourned Dame Joan Sutherland.

I hope that these might be of interest to our readers as it gives a possibility of having a real part of the legendary performances they have given us – in one’s own home.

Tags: William's Conversations with John Pascoe