Q&A with Costume and Set Designer Allegra Bernacchioni

COMPILED BY Gina Dionisio PHOTOS Annène van Eeden RENDERS Courtesy of Allegra Bernacchioni

Allegra Bernacchioni, a renowned set and costume designer, captivates audiences with her transcendent creations that defy space and time.

Cape Town Opera opens its exciting 25th anniversary year with Giacomo Puccini’s Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi at the Artscape from 14 to 17 February 2024. The highly anticipated double bill, directed by Magdalene Minnaar, pays homage to the composer’s timeless genius and celebrates the centenary of his death. We spoke with Allegra Bernacchioni, who designed the sets and costumes for both operas. Delving into the depths of her craft, she offers us a glimpse into her creative process, collaborative ventures and the seamless integration of technology into her designs.

Can you share your journey into the world of set and costume design? What inspired you to pursue this creative path?

It was 2003 when I enrolled in the Conceptual Art course at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, which I attended for two years. My professor, Alberto Garutti, a great Italian artist, was my mentor. Those were a tumultuous two years; I had always wanted to create and work in the artistic field, but that wasn’t to be my path. Just a few steps away from my classroom were the Set Design classrooms. I had never considered this path, but as soon as I crossed the threshold, I understood that it had to be my future. What fascinated me most of all was the freedom to draw from various types of arts because set design encompasses architecture, painting, sculpture, photography, video, music, acting, tailoring, and many other disciplines, making this profession a very exciting and stimulating journey. I don’t regret those two years of the Conceptual Art course; on the contrary, I am grateful for having made a ‘mistake’ because those two years have forever shaped my taste and style, which draws heavily from Conceptual Art. Often I take inspiration from prominent contemporary artists and my journey has allowed my mind to be filled with an iconography that is often still distant from traditional Scenography.

As a renowned designer, you’ve worked on a variety of productions. How do you approach the initial stages of a project, and what factors influence your design choices?

The work of every set or costume designer begins with a commission from a Director. The director’s task is to guide you on the path to take and share their vision, and their interpretation of the work that you will bring to the stage together. This is the moment when the designer starts working. Personally, I prefer a very rational approach; I begin by studying the music and the text (I can’t count the number of times I listen to a single opera, either in its entirety or single arias). Through this study, I search for nuances, for what the composer truly wanted to convey, for what lies behind each single note. I delve into the story behind every Libretto. ‘Study’ is my watchword. Through studying, I bring to light an infinite amount of information that is crucial for legitimising my artistic choices with concrete, documentable motivations.

What role does research play in your design process? How do you ensure authenticity and relevance in your set and costume designs?

I believe I have already partially answered this question. I want to add that research and study are fundamental; they form the foundation of every project. Regardless of the director’s vision or the interpretation of the opera to be staged, every scenic and costume choice must be relevant, precise, and faithful to the chosen direction. Whether setting Aida in an imaginary future or placing Mimi in a dilapidated attic among the rooftops of Paris, each decision should align with the overall concept. Awareness stems from knowledge, and study is the cornerstone. This should not intimidate young set designers or costume designers embarking on this career; no one expects omniscience, but it should encourage them to just be exceedingly curious.

Collaborative work is crucial in the world of theatre. How do you collaborate with directors, producers, and other team members to bring your creative vision to life?

In theatre, as in any other work context, teamwork is crucial. No Conductor can succeed without their Orchestra, no Director truly achieves their goal without the collaboration of other performing arts professionals. Today, more and more frequently, for one reason or another, we see Directors on international theatre stages who also serve as Costume designers, Light designers, and Set designers. Is it right? I don’t know and I don’t want to judge; I just want to say that by doing so, one misses the opportunity to enrich oneself, to benefit from the expertise of others, to entrust the work to the hands of specialists. In a nutshell, in my humble opinion, teamwork is essential, especially when it comes to staging a show.  My approach to teamwork is primarily based on respect and listening. I don’t like to impose my ideas, and I often seek the opinions of those who accompany me during the design and realisation of my works. My attitude is never that of a ‘diva’; on the contrary, I try to make myself available first and foremost to the Director and then to all the other professional figures around me. We must always remember that we are all involved in the creation of the same show, and everyone is important. Having worked extensively as a stage technician, scenic painter, and props master, I also consider all these professional roles crucial to the success of a theatrical production. It is often from the experience of these wonderful individuals that solutions to problems are found that might otherwise have remained unresolved. Therefore, teamwork should always be considered from a 360-degree perspective; there is not only the Director, Choreographer or Orchestra Conductor but also the stagehands, set builders, tailors, makeup artists, electricians, back and side stage teams… we are all essential, and we are all great professionals in this wonderful, ancient, and ever-evolving magic world (the opera theatre).

Technology has significantly impacted the design industry. How do you integrate technological advancements into your set and costume designs, and what challenges and opportunities does this present? 

I integrate technological advancements into my set and costume designs by leveraging digital tools for design visualisation, incorporating innovative materials and fabrication techniques, and exploring possibilities such as Augmented Reality for immersive experiences as was the case with Pagliacci directed by Cristian Taraborrelli at the Carlo Felice Theater in Genoa in 2021. The challenges include staying updated on rapidly evolving technologies, ensuring seamless integration with traditional craftsmanship, and managing budget constraints. However, technology offers opportunities for more dynamic and interactive designs, enhanced storytelling through multimedia elements, and efficient collaboration among design teams, ultimately pushing the boundaries of creative expression in the industry.

How do you balance staying true to your artistic vision while meeting the practical and budgetary constraints of a production?

I am not very stressed about the budget aspect. It is often thought that with a limited budget it is challenging to stage something visually appealing and in line with one’s vision of the opera or text. I am not afraid to work with a reduced budget because, as mentioned earlier, if the idea is good and has a solid foundation, then the set design and costumes can be scaled down without losing their impact on the audience. The key during the design process is to have clear ideas; solutions will follow. Of course, a skilled set and costume designer must pose the first question: ‘What is the budget?’ (If they don’t, they are reckless! – I’m kidding!) and then plan accordingly.  If I may add something, I would like to say that a skilled set or costume designer should not rigidly stick to their own ideas but be flexible, and understand the Director’s requests, as well as those of the theatre commissioning the opera. They should also be aware of the potential of the stage they are going to set up and the skills of the personnel involved. Knowing that there is a limited budget but being surrounded by high-level professionals was the case in the staging of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi at the Artscape Opera House in Cape Town. Not for a moment did I doubt, and I am proud of the work of every individual who participated in the project. We did an excellent job; the result is outstanding and worthy of the great international theatres.

Theatrical and opera productions often involve a mix of historical, contemporary, and fantastical elements. How do you approach blending these different influences in your designs?

During the early years of my career, I collaborated with the Director Giancarlo del Monaco, son of the renowned Italian tenor Mario del Monaco. Giancarlo, with a rich background, had a particular taste for blending various styles. I recall our work on the opera Don Carlo, the Milanese four-act version, for the ABAO Bilbao Opera in Spain. The stage was a vast map, designed by the Set Designer Carlo Centolavigna, featuring a dynamic layout changing throughout the show—an incredible spectacle. The set within it was adorned with historical elements from the relevant period. In charge of props, I, along with Maestro Carlo Centolavigna, created an exciting contrast between the modern stage and the historical props. This experience left a lasting impact on me. Whenever given the opportunity, as in Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi here in Cape Town, I tend to replicate the Don Carlo scenario. The contrast between modern and ancient, minimalist/symbolic, and traditional has a winning impact on the audience. Audiences, in a way, need visual references to connect with the story. It’s important to adhere to some indications from the Librettist or Composer to help the audience ‘accept’ the staging theme. Therefore, my preference is to create abstract, symbolic, and often minimalist stage spaces with props and costumes leaning towards tradition. This was evident in Il Trovatore directed by Stefano Monti for the Teatro Municipale di Piacenza in 2023.

The emotional impact of a set and costume design is profound. How do you ensure that your designs enhance the storytelling and connect with the audience on a deeper level?

Ensuring that set and costume designs have a profound emotional impact and enhance storytelling involves a combination of creativity, collaboration, and a deep understanding of the production’s themes. Here are several strategies that can contribute to achieving this goal:

  • Thorough Research and Understanding:
    Invest time in thoroughly researching the historical, cultural, and thematic elements of the production. Understanding the context of the play or opera can inform design choices and resonate more deeply with the audience.
  • Collaboration with Director and Team:
    Work closely with the director to align the designs with their vision for the production. Collaborate with other members of the creative team, such as lighting designers, choreographers, and musicians, to ensure a cohesive and integrated approach.
  • Character Analysis:
    Conduct a detailed analysis of each character to create costumes and settings that reflect their personalities, motivations, and journey throughout the story. Aligning design elements with character development enhances the audience’s emotional connection.
  • Symbolism and Metaphor:
    Integrate symbolic elements and metaphors into the design that resonate with the themes of the production. This can add layers of meaning and evoke emotions on a subconscious level.
  • Balancing Aesthetics with Functionality:
    Ensure that the designs not only look visually appealing but also serve the practical needs of the production. Balancing aesthetics with functionality ensures that the audience can fully engage with the performance without distraction.
  • Emphasis on Atmosphere:
    Create an atmospheric setting through set and lighting design that complements the mood of each scene. The atmosphere can significantly impact the emotional tone of the performance.
  • Attention to Detail:
    Pay attention to small details in both set and costume design. Thoughtful details can enhance the overall storytelling experience and contribute to the audience’s emotional engagement.
  • Flexibility and Adaptability:
    Be open to adjustments and modifications as the production evolves. Sometimes, changes may be necessary to better align with the emotional narrative of the performance.

By incorporating these strategies, a set and costume designer can create designs that not only contribute to the visual appeal of a production but also resonate emotionally with the audience, enriching their overall experience.

Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi  runs at the Artscape Opera House from 14 to 17 February 2024. For more info, visit artscape.co.za.