Poor Brunnhilde. Over the course of the four operas of Wagner's Ring Cycle, her love for Siegfried is thwarted time and again.
All she wants is a white wedding with her sweetheart. So for the Canadian Opera Company's production of Gotterdammerung, in which Brunnhilde learns that Siegfried is set to marry someone else, production designer Michael Levine decided that he needed some classic white wedding dresses to taunt her with.
It came as a bit of a shock for Carol Holland, the costume supervisor for the COC, an 18-year veteran of the company. "Michael said, 'Oh, by the way, I'm going to need 50 wedding dresses.' "
The entire Ring Cycle (of which Gotterdammerung is the final work, portraying the destruction of the gods) has been quite the project for Holland, what with a 50-member chorus and 18 principals to outfit for a total of 15 epic hours.
After Gotterdammerung, which opens Monday, the whole shebang will be presented in September, with a fresh production of the prelude, Das Rheingold, in which Levine makes his directorial debut.
Holland had a great idea: Why not ask the public for gowns? The call went out in newspapers and on radio last June, and more than 200 opera fans responded, from across Canada and even upstate New York.
"It was a very sweet idea," Levine said as he worked through how to use the dresses in rehearsals this past week. "To think of all those women sharing their memories."
His designs for the entire cycle span a long period: The first opera is set in the Victorian period, Die Walkure is 25 years later (and the costumes are by then ravaged by war). Siegfried is set in a dream a further 25 years on, so everyone is done up in pyjamas. And this production of Gotterdammerung is set in modern times.
Holland, who has been building costume stock only since 1990 (before that Malabar, the Toronto costume house, owned the duds), says the response was overwhelming. "We asked for white dresses, of any era, and any size. And boy, did we get a range."
The edited collection of 76 dresses that arrived in Holland's wardrobe studios on Front Street range from teeny and delicate artifacts from the 1920s to big pouffy eighties Dynasty numbers. Kay Gregg of Lakefield, Ont., sent in a hand-crocheted dress with matching hooded shrug, along with the original pattern from 1975.
Many came with letters attesting to the potency of the wedding dress as both a personal and a cultural artifact. "This is a wonderful opportunity for me to introduce my teenaged children to opera," wrote Denise Couroux. Shirley Cornfield (née Conke) sent her dress in commemoration of her 50th wedding anniversary. And a sister team brought their dresses in from Vancouver.
Others wanted to get rid of some memories. "This is an excellent recycling opportunity," said Ingrid Keen, who sent the dress from her first, short-lived wedding. She hoped it now "would have a more enduring role," on stage.
Some dresses were sent in memoriam. One belonged to a bride who never got to wear it; Carolyn Rigg died before her wedding day.
In an interview this week, Levine was coy about how he would use the dresses, which he had whittled down to the 10 most fabulous. He and director Tim Albery were contemplating using the dresses less to antagonize poor Brunnhilde, and more as a play on the modern concept of big-day dress shopping. "Women are presented with wedding gowns," Levine said. "That's all we can say right now."
It is, however, certain that among those in attendance on Monday will be a few generous folk craning to see if their gown made the cut. And all the dresses will live on as part of the COC's permanent collection.
Gotterdammerung will be performed at the Hummingbird Centre in Toronto Jan. 30 and Feb. 2, 4, 7 and 10 at 6 p.m., and Feb. 12 at 2 p.m., http://www.coc.ca.