Corsets and bustles backstage at La traviata

Posted on Gwen, 2014-03-07 14:37 by Opera Explorer

In the current WNO production directed by David McVicar and designed by Tanya McCallin, all of the women on stage are dressed in 19th-century costume, meaning that every lady, from the can-can dancers and maids, to the high-class courtesan Violetta, is wearing a corset and bustle in true 1840s style. In opera, where the ability to take deep breaths is fundamental to the whole endeavour, this brings its own challenges, as Sian Price, Head of Costume at WNO, explained to me. 'Lacing up a corset is quite an art. The ladies have to be corseted half an hour before the show begins, then the dress fits like a skin over the top of it. The corset has to warm to the singer's body, and then sometimes it has to be tightened again. In the touring venues, we usually have to train up the dressers before that, too!' In addition, every singer has their own preferences, which have to be taken into account: 'Some people like a tight corset, so they can sing against it. Others don't like them laced tightly at all.' A lot of care also goes into fixing the can-can dancers' heavy skirts: 'if they're not fitted tightly enough, they can become unbalanced, and the weight of the skirts could injure the dancers.'

Prior to curtain up at La traviata I spoke with several ladies from the WNO chorus and WNO Associate Artist Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, who plays the role of Flora, Violetta's friend. Rebecca explained to me that Flora's costume was particularly lavish for dramatic reasons: 'Flora has loads of cash as the Baron's favourite - but no style!' But she added that the corsets, which hold their shape with steel bones, bring their own authenticity as regards posture and keeping in character: 'It's actually impossible to slouch in them ­ and at the curtain calls, you have to curtsey in 19th-century-style ­ you can't bow!' Flora's elaborate bustle - which Rebecca fondly nicknames 'my little caterpillar' owing to its segmented shape - is attached over the corset, and the hems of her silk skirts are weighted to keep their shape; something to which dresser Stevie Gould can testify: 'It creates a wonderful silhouette but it is a workout for the singer to wear all of this. I know how heavy these clothes are - ­ I have to carry them from the dressing room on tour!' Sian Price explained that the corsets and bustles used in the production is inspired by the paintings of Tissot. They create an hourglass figure and accentuate the derrière, 'so that even the slimmest lady would have a large behind!'

Linda Richardson, who plays the part of Violetta, summarised the impact of the bustle brilliantly: 'I was backstage with Alan Opie [who plays the part if Germonte, the stern father of Alfredo, the romantic hero] and I turned round to him and said, 'There's something I really need to ask you - I'd really appreciate your artistic opinion... Does my bum look big in this?' He laughed his head off!'

Despite the tragedy of the nineteenth-century's Fallen Women on stage, it's clear that their style is a big hit with both audiences and the cast of La traviata.

Sophie Rashbrook