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BODILESS: Costumes for Gabrielle Herbst's New Opera

Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda

We’ve been busy at estudioBALMASEDA over the last couple of months making some magical costumes for Bodiless, Gabrielle Herbst's first full length opera which premiered on April 8th, 2014.

Left to right: Gabrielle Herbst, Ariadne Greif and Lucy Dhegrae surrounding Zaida post-show. Photo by Dorian Iten

Gabrielle and I met a few years ago while we were both working part-time at a Spanish wine/tapas bar in Chelsea (NY). We got along so well, and I had a feeling that this friendship would really blossom. We spoke constantly about our projects and supported each other. I went to hear Gabrielle perform with her band (GABI) at a collective show at Roulette in 2012 and fell in love with her music, bright intellect, and creative force. We spoke about working together sometime in the future and Bodiless seemed like the perfect occasion. Gabrielle commissioned the costumes for the first presentation of her 10 minute Opera Short which was co-presented by Experiments In Opera & Issue Project Room’s New Shorts Series in February 2013. 10 minutes may seem short, but I really poured my heart into the project as it was creatively nourishing and stimulating. It was wonderful to be working on something so freeing with someone whom I both admired and enjoyed spending time with.

We knew when this longer production was commissioned by Roulette and the Jerome Foundation, that we wanted to use the original costumes as a point of departure while enhancing and expanding them to make them exciting for the hour-long performance. I had periodical meetings with Gabrielle to discuss concept, themes, and vision… It was exciting to collaborate with someone who works in a different medium, and have the physical manifestation of our ideas be so aligned.

Designing costumes for an opera where people are mostly just seeing them from a distance meant that I needed to scale my gestures. Gabrielle encouraged me to go "all out", to make something wild and big. This was an engaging challenge for me as I love working with intricate, slow processes and I had to often remind myself of the context, the physical distance between the stage and the audience, and ‘the bigger picture’ of the story we were telling. It was a wonderful opportunity to create work that did not have a any commercial limitations, work that was fantastical, and that would come to life with the sounds and movements of three beautiful and talented vocalists accompanied by a wonderful ensemble.

I started by doing lots of research. Along with my apprentices we looked into themes discussed with Gabrielle; ideas for shapes, staging, hair, makeup, textile techniques, etc... However, things became much clearer once Angela Rawlings joined the project and contributed her beautiful libretto. She really helped define the characters’ identity/story development in each movement of the Opera. She referenced the archetype of the three fates, and I used that as a guide for the ‘dressing’ ritual which symbolized transition into and between stages of life/development/transience. I designed ‘modular’ costumes that would serve both as stage ‘props’ and as 'addendums' for the visual development of the three vocalists.

As usual, I wanted to stay true to my creative philosophy and be mindful about the materials I chose and how I used them. The costumes were made largely out of recycled jersey ‘scrap’ fabric. We ripped the fabric into strips of different widths, some of which were woven around the body to create a ‘net like’ bodysuit, some were tied together for a stranded/dreamcatcher-esque effect. I also used some recycled jersey to make BIG knitting yarn for the ‘addendums’ I hand-knit with massive (size 25mm) needles on the second movement. Then, we machine-knit varied dead-stock yarns into super thick knitting yarn for a sculptural effect.  


The first movement (TWI-) was mainly about birth, the beginning of the world, the Maiden and where the singers used a kind of ‘elf-language’… So I decided to have the costumes be quite bare, and staged the modules/addendums in an area of the stage which we decided to call the ‘nest’. This would be the sacred place where all changes took place. Each outfit had a web of LED lights at its core which illuminated each singer. The lights were placed in specific areas of the body around the location of important organs and represented the duality between the earthly/physical and the spiritual/soul. They symbolized what remains when we are bodiless; they are the core, the light in all darkness, the first thing to emerge (life) and the last thing to go (when we die).

Gabrielle, Lucy, and Ariadne a few moments before the performance began, wearing costumes for first movement.


The second movement (FORE) was about forewarning, the Mother, developing intuition, abundance, growth, overpowering body processes, earth/sea/mountains, strength, love, power. The vocalists used more concrete sentences describing their dreams. I made hand-knitted sculptural ‘addendums’ that to me symbolized entering a new level of maturation; they helped each other ‘grow’ into this by dressing each other ritualistically.

Clockwise from top: Lucy, Ariadne and Gabrielle during the second movement, rising after they have 'dressed' each other with the knitted 'addendums'. Photo by Mekko Harjo


The third movement (-LESS) was about awe, end, breath, wisdom, being at the door of death, the Crone, deep intuition, being in contact with the spiritual world, about developing trance and enlightenment... and here the vocalists spoke in ‘tongues’. Our apprentice Krysta Brayer made headdresses out of  twigs and branches we gathered from Prospect Park, copper wire, and organic wool yarn. Once again the creatures bowed and crowned each other, they wrapped themselves in a cocoon of light reflecting fabric that united them and allowed them to share some of their light with the audience. The piece finished in total darkness and silence, with just the breath and three glowing soul lights.

Gabrielle’s powerful composition was brought to life through the creative force of some very talented people. Gabrielle acted as composer and singer and was joined by the voices of Lucy Dhegrae and Ariadne Greif, embedded in sounds by the music ensemble Contemporaneous conducted by David Bloom. The beautiful libretto that served as such a huge source of inspiration in my creative process was written by the poet Angela Rawlings.


Photos by Dorian Iten, Mekko Harjo and Zaida Adriana Goveo Balmaseda