For decades, costume designer Robert Perdziola has worked his magic, designing costumes for performing arts productions across the country. With one glance at his gallery-worthy sketches, it’s easy to see why Boston Lyric Opera tasked him to design the costumes for their new production of Benjamin Britten’s challenging chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia, which runs March 11-17 at the new Artists for Humanity EpiCenter. Set in ancient Rome, the opera explores how Tarquinius, the prince of Rome rapes Lucretia, a general’s wife, leading to her public testimony and self-sacrifice that eventually topples the monarchy. Follow the thread as we talk about time periods and fashionable inspirations with Perdziola ahead of the opera’s opening night.
How did the historical time period affect your work? The story is set in ancient Rome but the opera was written in the middle of the 20th century and the music is much more modern than ancient Rome. So the music colors this a lot and I didn’t want to do something generically Roman and I don’t think [director Sarna Lapine] wanted that either. So we explored how to present these three men in the first scene. It’s almost like they’re sitting around a campfire bragging about sex and, you know, it’s rather disgusting. So my visual premise began there and I used my imagination from that. … I looked to Hollywood in recent films that I have found to be successful in their invention of a period. If you look at Gladiator as well as the recent Mad Max, I thought those films were successful in their visual invention of a period. And it’s a tricky thing to do because as much as you want something to feel modern, because you root it in today, it can quickly become dated. I wasn’t so afraid of that because with this version of Lucretia, it’s an installation opera and it’s being done specifically at this venue here in Boston so it is something of the moment.
Illustration by Robert Perdziola
What was your inspiration for costuming the character of Lucretia? The character of Lucretia is tricky because she obviously is the victim in this piece. But her suicide is a kind of revenge that’s actually very powerful and it’s her exit. It’s her way out and it leads to something else for the political state of Rome. So because it’s that catalyst, her suicide is a very strong thing for me. So I didn’t want to put her in a white dress. I didn’t want her to be streamlined and modern, in something that looked kind of 1930s-ish. I wasn’t sure what I wanted. And I recalled this Heavenly Bodies exhibit at the Met where I had seen a line of dresses. There was a line of mosaic dresses that Dolce & Gabbana did in 2013 that kind of went nowhere. … I was drawn to them because they were embellished but stoic and they had a lot of energy for the figure. I thought that if I was able to do something like that it was a way to create a very strong focal point for Lucretia, and even though her physical being in the early parts of the opera is a composed person, it establishes a lot of gravitas for her. So I did kind of my version of a mosaic dress.
What was your inspiration for her blue and white gown with the cape? It’s a very simple gown for her final dress; the final moment of the suicide. It’s a piece of my own invention and if you look at some of the great Hollywood designers of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, they’re very simple lines derived from classical shapes. So it’s my bow to that.
Illustration by Robert Perdziola
What was your intention behind the costume for Tarquinius? Because I had worked with [Duncan Rock] before I was familiar with him. He’s a large guy and he can very easily an imposing presence on stage. And I think that’s fortunate for me, for the company and for this opera to have someone like that in this role who is the rapist. I’m simplifying things—he commits this rape because it’s out of a sense of entitlement. Tarquinius is the prince of Rome. He’s not just a soldier or a warrior in the company. He’s the prince of Rome and he can take what he wants. So his outfit that I’ve done, the jacket he’s wearing is almost like a—I’m giving myself too much credit here—but it’s like a decaying Versace jacket. Over-the-top decadent that’s aged and covered with enameled studs and leather bits. So there’s kind of animalistic texture to his person.