One of my favourite projects this year was the Opera Project. It was a very freeing project, using a different design method than usual, geared towards being experimental, and led by the wonderful Jacqui Gunn. We had the choice of two operas, The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky and The Turn of the Screw by Benjamin Britten. I am very familiar with The Turn of the Screw, my cousin having played Miles, so I decided to work on The Queen of Spades. Our first task was to draw while listening to the music. I used oil pastels on tracing paper because I wanted to be bold with colour and be able to draw quickly and freely.
Our next task was to collect six images in response to the opera of our choice. I chose a photo of St Petersburg, the setting of the opera; the interior of an ornate opera house; a contemporary photograph of a woman in a Queen of Spades fancy dress costume; a set of colourful 60s playing card designs; a Russian avant-garde costume drawing of some soldiers; and a modern take on 60s formal chic.
Task three was to create a story board, in whatever form we liked. I chose to find and display the setting for each scene, using real buildings and locations in St Petersburg. I also did a scene breakdown to help me with this.
Jacqui also suggested that we take one character and think about their life before and after the opera takes place. I chose the Countess and wrote her life story. I found this a really useful exercise for understanding a character, their motivations and place in the story.
The Countess was born in St Petersburg. After the death of both her parents, she was raised by her grandmother. She grew intelligent and beautiful. Thinking her a little wild, her grandmother sent her on a tour of Europe, and soon arrived in Paris. Belle of all the balls, all the gay and smart young men pursued her. One such man was the handsome Count Saint Germain. Mysterious and wealthy, he attempted to court her. But the ‘Venus of Moscow’ did not care for love, only for the cards. And so he changed tactics. He offered her the secret of three magic cards that were guaranteed to win in return for her hand. But she rejected him.
One night in Versailles, playing ‘au jeu de la Reine’, she finally ran out of money. Berating herself for her foolishness she left the tables. St Germain, who had long watched her at her games, followed her. He found her regretting her losses in darkness, silence and solitude. Thinking now she might finally accept his suit, he propositioned her. In return for one night, he would tell her the secret of the Queen’s game, the three winning cards. This time she accepted. By dawn she had returned to the tables. The Countess regained all the money she had lost and more, at the cost of her fellow players.
But, guaranteed as she was to always win, the Queen of Spades grew bored of the game. She returned to Russia, and married. Haunted by stories of her exploits in Paris, her husband took to cards and urged her to tell him the secret of the three cards. Eventually she did, but when he won at the gambling tables, his opponents accused him of cheating them, and killed him.
Before her husband died, she had borne him a son. He grew handsome and gallant. He married and had a daughter. His wife named her Lisa, and then died. Distraught, he took to drink and gambling. One night he arrived on his mother’s doorstep, having spent all he had at the gambling house. She told him the secret of the three cards, so he could win back what he had lost, on the condition he then gave up. He returned to the tables, but in his drink addled state had forgotten the three cards. He killed himself in despair.
That night as the Countess was sleeping, the ghost of her son appeared to her. He told her that when a third man, wretched in love, sought the secret of the three cards from her, she would die. So the Countess, grief stricken, brought up her granddaughter, and dreaded the appearance of the third man.
By 1889, the Countess has grown old. Society has lost it’s charms to her. She concerns herself mostly with Lisa, but thinks often about her younger years. She thinks more and more of her son’s warning. One day she walks in the park with her Granddaughter. She is pleased that she had secured a future for Lisa by engaging her to Prince Yeletsky. Her contentment is ruined when she notices a familiar man with Lisa’s fiancé. She has seen this mysterious man frequently and believes he his following her. He looks at her threateningly, and she thinks he might be a little mad. Is it possible he is the third man? She asks Count Tomsky about him.
That night when going to bed she hears noises from Lisa’s room. Still a little on edge from the day’s events she scolds Lisa and sends her to bed.
Another night, after a masked ball, the Countess laments modern society. She recalls her days in Paris, and sings a little of a song she one sang to the King. She doses off, and when she awakes it is to find the mysterious man in front of her. She is terrified, and then understands what he wants, the three cards. She is angered by his words, he does not understand the risk. When he draws a gun she accepts her fate, and dies.
Now that she is dead the Countess understands all. Death tells her of the price of the secret of the three cards. Saint Germain had made a bargain with Death for the three magic cards, and only he could reveal the secret to another. All that she had told were cursed with misfortune. Death commands her to tell Herman of the three cards.
She finds Herman at the barracks. She knocks on his window. She makes with wind blow. She looks in at him and then knocks again. She makes the wind blow the door open and blow out the candle. She steps into the doorway, and speaks the three cards to Herman.
The Countess continues to watch Herman, and is greatly angered by his behaviour towards Lisa. Why did she tell him the three cards if it was not to make his fortune so he could marry Lisa? She goes to Price Yeletsky and tells him to play against Herman at the Gambling House tonight if he wants his revenge. She watches as Herman wins with the first two cards. As Tchekalinsky shuffles, she replaces the ace with the Queen of Spades and watches as Herman loses, and then kills himself.
Now that the Countess has paid her price for the secret of the three cards, she spends her days in the land of the dead reunited with her family. She is glad, in the end, that Herman and Lisa are together at last. Sometimes she sees Saint Germain, she is not sure if should forgive him.
I was told to do more research and develop my concept. I looked into Russian folk costume and design, fashion in Soviet Russia, political figures before and after the revolution, Soviet military uniforms, Russian Constructivism, and Soviet architecture. I also played with the idea of a print consisting of disjointed playing cards.
I received positive feedback from Jacqui and she gave me some tasks to do. She encouraged me to use photomontage – constructivism style. She told me to certain political figures into the context of some of the buildings I had found. I had a lot of fun with these, not thinking of them as costume designs really freed me up to have fun with them and try different things out. I experimented with different materials – colouring pencils, biro, oil pastels, metallic pens, ink, watercolours and felt tips.
They were received positively by the class and Jacqui was pleased with my progression. She suggested that for the ball scene everyone wears elements of ‘old’ Russian buildings, and this is where the Russian folk boots come in! I had to rush these a bit to get them in for the deadline so they’re not as well thought out as I would have liked them to be, but fun nonetheless.
This was a great project to do after Macbeth. Less pressure meant I was able to have more fun with the costumes and be more experimental – which was the whole point!