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Phantom Of The Opera Goes Couture

Category: Phantom of the Opera News
Article Date: December 26, 2004 | Publication: Toronto Fashion Monitor | Author: ediotrs

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Costume designer Alexandra Byrne traveled to Paris to research the world of the Opera Garnier, on which the film's fictitious

Fabulous costumes in The Phantom of the Opera recreate the sumptuous world of 1870s Paris. Director Joel Schumacher turned to Alexandra Byrne, an accomplished film and theatre costume designer who earned Academy Award nominations for her work on Elizabeth and Hamlet, to design the extensive wardrobe for Phantom.

"I have great respect for Alex," says Schumacher, a former costume designer himself. "Anyone who can make Elizabeth, which is set in a particularly unsexy period for women, look as good as Alex did, has real talent. She also has a very contemporary and unusual approach to costume design. She works from the inside out, which I love about her."

From workshops based at Pinewood Studios and in London, Byrne and her team handmade 300 costumes for the ambitious production, and modified another 2,000 obtained through an extensive exploration of wardrobe houses across Europe.

While creating a "heightened representation of the period," the designer had to maintain visual continuity throughout a large cast of characters, many of whom perform three operas, two ballets and stage a masquerade ball within the main storyline. And, unlike the stage production, the film delves into the backstage world of the Opera Populaire, requiring Byrne to outfit the ensemble in a naturalistic fashion that credibly conveys the theatre's bustling hive of backstage activity.

"The scale of the film goes from being a two character duet to a huge dramatic set piece and back again, so the challenge was to create a balanced style that enhances the scale of the love story and sweeps the audience up into that world without being distracting," she explains. "Meanwhile, these are not just costumes to look at. They had to be practical as well for the big choreographed pieces. So there were many demands to meet."

Perhaps the most challenging character to design for was the eponymous Phantom, for whom Byrne had to create wardrobe that conveys a sense of mystery, charisma and danger about a man who is often shrouded in shadows. "It's about silhouette, shape and sexuality," says Byrne of her designs for the Phantom, played by Gerard Butler. "The starting point was the silhouette, seeing how the costume moves, the shapes that are created and how those shapes resonate. Developing and stylizing originated with Gerard's fittings, by looking at collars, proportions and shapes and seeing how they worked on his body."

A crucial facet of the Phantom's costume is his iconic mask, which, like the prosthetic makeup Butler wears beneath it, had to be re-imagined for the film, where audiences get their first close-up look at both the Phantom's facial disfigurement and the disguise he wears to hide it. "We went through endless prototypes in developing the shape, the texture, the material and the fit of the mask," says Byrne, who worked closely with hair and makeup artist Jenny Shircore to create a design that was ultimately actualized in a very fine leather.

Like the design of the Phantom's costume and mask, his underlying physical deformity had to be rendered convincingly, without alienating the audience in the process. "We didn't want his disfigurement to be horribly grotesque," Byrne acknowledges. "It was about trying to find the real person behind the mask. We want the audience to see his attractiveness, his anger and his vulnerability."

Shircore, an Oscar winner in 1999 for her work on Elizabeth, based her design for the Phantom's disfigurement on a medical condition, underscoring the character's background as a misunderstood former sideshow freak. A life cast was made of Butler's face, from which gelatin prosthetics were created and then applied during a four hour process.

Designing for the character Christine, the captivating young soprano played by Emmy Rossum, presented an entirely different set of challenges, as "We hardly ever see Christine in her own clothes," says Byrne. "She's nearly always wearing her stage costumes. To establish and help develop a character who is effectively wearing theatrical costumes rather than her own clothes is quite difficult."

Competing with the Phantom for Christine's affections is the Opera Populaire's new patron, the Vicompte Raoul de Chagny, who also happens to be her childhood sweetheart. "Joel saw Raoul as a country gentleman, romantic and very much at ease with himself," Byrne says of the character played by Patrick Wilson. "We fitted existing stock on Patrick to find shapes, style, color and texture that worked towards establishing those qualities."

One of the characters Byrne most enjoyed designing for is La Carlotta, the Opera Populaire's reigning diva, played by Minnie Driver. "Carlotta is great fun because she's a larger-than-life character," notes Byrne, who, like Driver, is nearly six feet tall. "I love dressing tall women, and working with Minnie is fantastic because she understands clothes and how they work on her body. Having said that, the designs were much harder than I anticipated. It can't go big all over; it has to stay small somewhere to keep the proportion working."

The stunning costume that represents Carlotta's idea of an "everyday outfit" required the most fabric of any of the custom-made pieces: 27 meters of deep purple silk. According to Byrne, this much material was required not only for Driver's stature but because of "the distance from the skirt's high waist to the ground where we were draping fabric. Also, the fabric of the period is not heavy like duchess silk. It's like paper taffeta, very insubstantial, which is why we needed so much for sculpture and scale."

Like the lead costumes, wardrobe for the theatre company ensemble and its managers are stylized versions of period clothing. For Madame Giry, the Opera's stern but compassionate ballet mistress, Byrne dressed actress Miranda Richardson so as "to give her character some warmth, tenderness and a slightly Bohemian background."

In the case of the Opera's eager new managers, Andre and Firmin, Byrne underscored the characters' divergent personalities by accentuating the actors' different body types. "Joel gave me two incredibly different physical shapes to work with," says Byrne of Ciaran Hands (Firmin) and his notably shorter counterpart Simon Callow (Andre). "Just by narrowing Simon's trousers, slightly pegging them down to the hem, it exaggerates his fantastic natural shape until it becomes an extreme version that really sets him apart."

In addition to dressing the characters within the story, Byrne also created costumes for the ensemble performances staged at the opera house with an eye toward "making them look very different from those in the 'real world.'" The resourceful designer produced many of her own fabrics for the sequences by printing designs onto existing material, pragmatically observing that "fabrics are the most difficult part of any costume. You can have all the ideas in the world but if you don't have the right movement in the fabric, let alone color, pattern and yardage, then it just doesn't happen."

The first opera performed in the story is Hannibal, a grand epic set in Roman times. "Joel's direction for Hannibal was to be vulgar, so I went for it!" jokes Byrne, who bought a beautiful length of 19th century fabric that was photographically made into a screen and then printed onto a large quantity of inexpensive cotton curtain lining, creating hundreds of meters of material for the chorus costumes alone.

Makeup artist Jenny Shircore complemented Byrne's striking designs with her brash makeup scheme. "Because of the battles in Hannibal, we created makeup that was about Victorian war paint, using bold blues and reds," she explains. "We wanted the wigs and beards to look like they had been made by the workers in the wig store backstage, without the professional finish that wigs and beards have today. Then we colored them to give a bright, loud look to it all."

In contrast to the colorful Hannibal is the film's second theatrical piece, the 18th century comic opera Il Muto, for which Byrne and Shircore utilized a paler palette of pink, blue and white to achieve the look of "sugar-dusted sweets." This effect is accentuated by the crystal fabric Byrne and company used for the costumes, which reflect the background colors of production designer Tony Pratt's sets.

"The wigs of that period were quite big, so we really went to town with Carlotta's wig, which makes her look even more tall and dramatic," Shircore says. "The stage makeup of the era is thick, cracked pancake makeup. But Joel wanted everything in Il Muto to be beautiful, so it was an interesting combination of establishing the Victorian look of the period while keeping it attractive to the modern eye."

The final theatrical performance is the Phantom's original composition, Don Juan Triumphant! Byrne and Shircore established a dark, striking look for the climactic Spanish-themed opera. "Don Juan was the most difficult because it's the Phantom's own design," Byrne relates, "so we tried to move away from everything we'd done before. We came up with the idea that he's actually painted the costumes in almost a graffiti style. They look quite brutal, and unlike any other shapes seen in the film."

For the story's resplendent Masquerade sequence, in which the Opera Populaire hosts a masked ball to celebrate the New Year and the Phantom's apparent disappearance from the opera house, Byrne selected a black, white, gold and silver palette to create an "overall strength" to the dazzling visuals. "This also gives the Phantom a great platform when he suddenly appears at the ball and he's dressed head to toe in bullion and scarlet," she explains. "We dressed Christine in pink because, at this point in the story, she is tinged by his spell."

The designer accessorized the nearly 200 Masqueraders with star-motifed tiaras and jewelry she created by incorporating chandelier components from world-renowned crystal manufacturer Swarovski, which provided over 20,000 pieces for the construction of the Opera Populaire's magnificent chandelier, a key element of the Phantom legend.

Reflecting on the thousands of costumes she and her team designed and crafted for the film, "I have never been so tired at the end of a job," Byrne admits good-naturedly. "The scale and range of it was just massive."


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