On Dec. 8, “Orlando” will have its premiere at the Vienna State Opera. The opera represents a meeting of female creative minds across time and countries: It is based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, composed by Olga Neuwirth, with a libretto by Ms. Neuwirth and Catherine Filloux, directed by Polly Graham, with costumes by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.
“Orlando” is the first opera commissioned from a female composer by the Vienna Opera in its 150 years of existence, and the first time Ms. Kawakubo has designed for the stage. In an email exchange, she discussed the experience.
How did this come about?
They asked me in May. The fact they are both strong creative women was attractive to me, and the fact that Olga is one of the very few women composers working today, and the first to be asked to do a major opera in Vienna, was interesting for me too. And also I have always been interested in Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle and “Orlando” in particular because of its central concept of ignoring time and gender.
When did you first discover Virginia Woolf?
I can’t remember.
How does designing for an opera relate to designing a collection? I know you titled your men’s collection “Act I” and the women’s in September “Act II.”
Sadly I did not have enough time to start completely from zero. There were 36 main costumes for the principals, plus 106 others for the choruses and other groups. I accepted to do the costumes on condition that Olga agreed that I could use the theme of “Orlando” for the two Paris collections proceeding it, since that was the only way I could physically accomplish it in time. Some patterns I necessarily reused and reconceived from the archives, although everything had totally new fabrics. I basically did the whole thing in six weeks.
What was your aim with the costumes?
I just wanted to make something that was new, as always, even if just in the context of an opera. Clothes tell a story, and they express an emotion.
And challenge received wisdom?
Hopefully they do that too.
Has your view of gender changed over the years?
I have always been interested in the breaking down of barriers and accepted notions about anything, including gender. Fashion in general is one of the best means to express one’s identity. People should be free to express themselves irrespective of the gender binaries and boundaries.
Were you trying to break rules with the costumes?
I am always trying to break the rules with everything because no really new strong creation ever didn’t.
Which rule in particular were you breaking here?
Perhaps the custom or rule that the costumes should take into account the libretto and the staging? I knew very little about the scale of the production, only a list of the costumes I had to make. As there was no time (and I was not asked) to design the sets, I decided to create the costumes in the void without giving myself any constraints. I asked Olga if it was O.K. to leave the costumes to synergy and chance, and she agreed.
So it was pure imagination?
I did try to imagine how the various pieces would work onstage together. I took some account of what would be worn by people on the stage at the same time.
Speaking of time: What role does time play in clothing?
No role. Creation cannot be anchored in time.
Will you do another opera?