The Wrong Trousers?
A Discussion of Set and Costumes
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the set design in this Met production—in short, to see themselves as Don Pasquale experts.
In the Extreme Makeover Performance Activity for Don Pasquale, students paid close attention to Rolf Langenfass’s design for this production. The set and costumes place the production in a 19th-century European setting, the era when the opera was written and in which it is traditionally set. But much against Donizetti’s will, its first production in 1843 was set in the 18th century. The composer argued against dressing his singers in powdered wigs and velvet waistcoats. Not only did he feel that his characters should dress in contemporary, 19th-century outfits, but he insisted that the 18th-century style was ill-suited to the music he’d written.
Today’s students might not have a strong sense of the difference in dress and décor between the 18th and 19th century. To get a sense of costumes throughout the ages, have students conduct some online research. A useful place to begin is the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute Web site.
As they assemble images, students may enjoy creating a display, such as a bulletin board, a Web site, or a hard-copy booklet, comparing the look of various time periods, for instance the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s.
Donizetti lost the argument over set and costume design—but do your students think he had a point?
Do old-fashioned costumes undermine Donizetti’s intentions? Why or why not?
What about current-day productions? If Donizetti were still alive, do students think he would still want the opera to be set in the 19th century or something more contemporary?
What about changing the setting completely—perhaps to the Roaring 1920s, the Wild West, or the 21st century?
Students can express their opinions in persuasive essays. As evidence, they can use the images they’ve found, together with their recollections of the performance.
Issues to consider include:
How do costume and set design affect an audience’s experience at the opera?
Should the composer always have the last word on how his work should be presented?
On the other hand, should the artists assembled for a production, including the director, the costume and set designers, and the conductor, be free to interpret and present an opera as they see fit?
If Donizetti did deserve the last word, should a 21st-century production of Don Pasquale be staged in contemporary dress?
Ultimately, all these aspects amount to a single question: How universal is the story of Don Pasquale? Is it entirely specific to the culture of Europe in 1843? How might it translate to another time and place?