When an opera house decides to take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, no matter which rendition – they’re making a huge commitment. Arguably one of the most famous love stories of all time, almost every audience member is familiar with the play – meaning that almost everyone who attends is going to have high expectations. Chicago’s Lyric Opera is currently running Romeo and Juliet, which I had the pleasure of attending on its premiere night.
Romeo and Juliet is an epic tale of two star-crossed lovers (which you already knew), but this provides a certain set of complications for the costume designer. I spoke to the six time Tony award winning costume designer, Catherine Zuber, about the inspiration she pulled from to uniquely costume a centuries-old performance.
To begin the design process, Zuber looked at Italian and French paintings from the time period, as well as Frederico Fellini’s film, Casanova. The end result was a combination of 17th century clothing with touches of modern romanticism, which helped to refresh and retell the tragic story.
When asked what the most difficult part of the process was, Zuber responded, “Telling the story while creating a cohesive society. The challenge to combine many different periods of style while incorporating the silhouettes, colors, hairstyles, and accessories of the time. The goal was [to achieve] a highly charged, emotionally romantic and violent environment.”
If this was the most difficult part, Zuber achieved. The Capulets were flashier version of their Montague counterparts, leaving Romeo + Co. dressing in darker colors and heavier clothing – an obvious disdain for their ostentatious arch enemies. The contrast was clear in Juliet and Romeo’s first meeting; Juliet’s massive, pink party dress showed off her youth and rich upbringing. Of course, what daddy’s girl wouldn’t be allured by the tall, dark stranger dressed almost entirely in black leather?
The characterization in Juliet was also palpable, as her virginally pink party dress turns into a white, sensually draped nightgown that moved with femininity and emotion and eventually becomes her funeral shroud. Romeo only had one costume, as the stoic male hero of the story – yet his white dress shirt stands out with Juliet’s white dress. Zuber pointed out that those two articles of clothing are the only pieces of white onstage, linking the story of the two pure lovers in their costumes.
In the end, Zuber’s overly decadent selections when dressing the ensemble and selective minimalism in Romeo and Juliet provided a visual element to the love story. If you get the chance to see Romeo and Juliet at the Lyric during its run, I’d highly recommend it. Bring tissues.