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Back stage, Paris Opera keeps venerable crafts alive

Every year, around 40 students like Morais train in skills such as costume making, wig design and tapestry, as well as lyrical singing and music, at the heart of the opera company, which celebrates its 350th anniversary next year

Update : 23 Nov 2018, 07:47 PM

At the Paris Opera, people often say that for the curtain to rise on its stars, the talents of 100 different trades are needed behind the scenes.

Thanks to an academy, founded in 2015, to preserve some of those specialized crafts, Brazilian Tulio Morais will finally realize his dream of learning to make ballet tutus.

Every year, around 40 students like Morais train in skills such as costume making, wig design and tapestry, as well as lyrical singing and music, at the heart of the opera company, which celebrates its 350th anniversary next year.

While other opera houses have workshops in singing and sewing, Paris Opera, the largest in Europe, is the "only one in the world that teaches such a large number of arts", Myriam Mazouzi, the academy director, told AFP.

The concept is to pass on the knowledge of these crafts at risk of disappearing to already experienced professionals who can safeguard the know-how.

"In some sectors it was a real struggle to recruit people," the director said.

In the female costume department at the opera's historic Palais Garnier site in central Paris, tutor and workshop head Anne-Marie Legrand promises Morais that he will soon put together his first tutu for "Swan Lake" in January.

She runs him through the process, from costume design to fitting and adjusting the volumes.

"I always dreamed of making timeless clothes," says Morais, who is discovering new stitching and finishing techniques.

With ready-to-wear collections, "it lasts six months, a costume on stage, it's for life".

Nearby, dozens of white tutus are hanging up in a historic room known as "central".

"There are very few people in the world who know" how to make this emblematic ballet skirt, which was first created at Paris Opera in the 19th century, Legrand said.

"There is no real school for this," she added.

According to the director, fashion designer Christian Lacroix said that the Paris Opera was the only place in the world that really knows how to work with tulle fabric.

Legrand said that when she joined the Paris Opera 36 years ago, tutu making was a jealously guarded secret, transmitted from seamstress to seamstress.

"Someone needs to guide you" in gathering the pleats and layers of the tutu, she said.

In another workshop, a tutor runs through the intricacies of wig making and student Camille Laurent learns to distinguish styles from 1830 and 1850.

"When I tell people I am a wig maker, they say to me: 'You're a what?'" she laughs.

Her teacher, Clothilde Loosveldt, shows how to implant hair, strand by strand, with a hook and create the long wigs of rigid tight curls popular among men in the 18th century.

One wig can take 10 days to make.

"If the volume is not good, if the bun is not the right height, then we can easily slip from one era to another," said the wigmaker who has worked at the Paris Opera for 20 years.

Codes and habits

At the Paris Opera's Bastille site, violinist Marin Lamacque, 24, rehearses a difficult score of music from Verdi's opera "Simon Boccanegra". His tutor Thibault Vieux urges him to play with more emphasis.

As well as working directly on a production, the school also "passes on the codes, the habits" that belong just to the Paris Opera, Vieux said.

"We play Tosca like this, and Carmen like that," he said. "Often the teachers of our teachers worked together with the composers."

As an example, he quoted the three-act opera "Dialogues des Carmelites" (Dialogues of the Carmelites) created at the Paris Opera by Francis Poulenc in 1956.

Students, selected by resume for the crafts, and by audition for the musicians and singers, are in residence for up to three years.

The academy's annual budget of 3.4 million euros ($3.9 million) is financed mostly through philanthropy, in particular from the Paris-based Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation.

The students from the class of 2018 came from across the world.

For the American mezzo-soprano Jeanne Ireland, the experience surpassed all expectations, allowing her the chance to sing in one of the opera's own productions, which only a handful of the academy's students get to do.

She said her time at the academy had enabled her to become the artist she had long hoped to be.

"Everybody here is cultivating our talent... and that coupled with the performance opportunities that the academy offers, it really is a fast-track to growth," said the singer, who has seen some of her idols at the Paris Opera.

"Seeing them rehearse casually, it was one of those moments where I thought 'you have to pinch me'."

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