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LA MONNAIE DE MUNT

Reviving Lulu

A ‘how to’ guide

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
8 min.

Bringing a production back to life in an opera house, nine years after its first performance, is only possible through a whole series of small steps, all lined up like dominoes. Stretching from the last closing night to the upcoming opening night, they involve every single part of the show, and therefore every department that worked on the original production.

The date was Tuesday 30 October 2012. The audience was spilling out onto the cobbled Brussels streets, the echo of their applause still ringing in the wings of La Monnaie. While the cast, crew and a few lucky theatre goers celebrated the end of the production in the magnificent splendour of the Grand Foyer, the wardrobe department was gathering the costumes to be cleaned and prepared that evening and the next day before being sent to the stockroom...

UNPACKING THE TUTUS

Located on the 4th, 5th and, more recently, the 7th floors of our workshops, the storeroom, as its coordinator Maud Veder explains, "contains a very extensive collection of clothes on racks, arranged by type (trousers, dresses, etc.). They are used for rehearsals or as samples when creating particular costumes". The top floor is used to store production pieces for future tours or restaging before they are retired or sold. Costumes are hung on hangers in wardrobe boxes if they have to travel or in flight cases on wheels if they are staying at La Monnaie. "We go to great lengths to keep the clothes in good condition," says Maud, "including using a good ventilation system and leaving enough space for the fabric to breathe, as well as keeping them out of direct sunlight to help preserve the colours. The costumes are also protected against moths. You always have to find the best way to store them so that you can find them easily and at the same time to prevent them from deterioration. For more complex pieces you have to come up with customised solutions for packing and protecting them.”

The dresses, shirts and many tutus worn in Krzysztof Warlikowski's version of Lulu had been waiting in our storeroom for almost nine years before they were unpacked last May. The glamorous world of rhinestones, glitter, excess and cross-dressing created by the Polish director and his partner Małgorzata Szczęśniak necessitated the production of some 57 costumes. They have been taken back to the production studios for renovation. "After so many years in storage, some of the fabrics are too old to be renovated," explains wardrobe assistant Arabelle Poels, who is working on the production. "The cast has also changed and those actors returning have to be re-checked to make sure that the measurements taken at the time are still correct. Some of the embroidered pieces with beads or floral ornamentation that has been crushed also need to be re-worked. On the whole though, the production's costumes aren't too badly damaged."

CHANGING FACES

La Monnaie video unit had only just become operational when the first production took place, which was a stroke of luck for Warlikowski, whose love of cinema often extends to filming and projecting a lot of images in his stage productions. Nine years ago, Denis Géguin made the Lulu videos alongside our teams. They use two types of storage: a multi-gigabit open-access archive server that allows day-to-day file management for current productions, and a digital cassette system for old files.

When the time came to bring this show back to life, the video department did a lot of research and analysis of the old footage to see what could be reused and what needed to be shot again, especially because of changes in the cast. For example, most of the young ballerina extras who were on stage in 2012 are likely to have moved on in their careers by now. As a result, any footage featuring their characters could no longer be used. Something else that had to be taken into account was the fact that the production system in the theatre has changed. Would the change in technology be too obvious? Would it affect the quality of the projections? These are the kinds of issues that the teams have had to deal with almost entirely on a case-by-case basis.

Another major upheaval at La Monnaie in recent years has had a very tangible impact on this restaging. From 2015 to 2017, all our performances were relocated to a marquee in Tour & Taxis while the theatre underwent extensive renovations. As well as replacing the ventilation system, the lighting and the perfectly replicated red seating, electric hydraulic lifts were installed to move large structures, plus the gradient of the stage was dropped from 4% to 0%. However, all the sets for Lulu were built three years before this work even began and were designed to accommodate this 4% incline so our current crew have then had to work around that.

© Pieter Claes

For nine years, these sets have been quietly waiting in a container in Antwerp. Specialist carpenter Julien Vergieu explains, "Everything is stored very carefully, but even so, there are always surprises. Sometimes bits are broken or have disappeared". This is why the sets are unpacked, inspected and rebuilt in the assembly room several weeks before rehearsals begin. After checking their condition, elements of the set are sent to various workshops to be renovated if necessary. Amidst the clatter of hammers and spanners, the large glass box that dominates a significant part of Lulu's set could only be rebuilt after the rusty metal of its framework had been sanded down with an angle grinder. Once this had been done, the wheeled base of the three by five metre box was assembled by a team of four people before the remaining parts were hoisted by a system of motorised and remote-controlled pulleys and assembled in half a day using the original plans from the first run of the show.

Many folders

Stage notes, production drawings, digital files, tags, plans, etc. Bringing back an opera such as Lulu is made easier by several different coding and archiving systems, spread across the various departments. Some of the files containing these documents are kept in the La Monnaie studios for several years before a production is decommissioned.

© Simon Van Rompay

ANIMALS AND HAIRCUTS

If you've ever seen the production, either when it was first on stage or on video, you may remember the incredibly intense moment when the main character has her hair cut on stage. Obviously, it wasn't Barbara Hannigan's real hair. This is why nine wigs were made for her at the time. Using production notes, reference photos and the singer's measurements, our wig makers had to do the same work for this production, and well in advance, as it takes between 80 and 130 hours of manual labour to make each wig.

© Pieter Claes

Having already been checked in June, the wigs for the rest of the cast were brought out and hung up in August. Steve Callut, who is overseeing the restaging, explains, "the wigs for the returning soloists were kept, so we pulled them out, shampooed them and re-styled them. For the new soloists, we had to look through what we have in our inventory or recreate new ones.” The character of Lilly Jørstad, for example, who needs a Mohican, had to be re-measured. The hairstyle is fitted to a silicone faux scalp on a tulle foundation which can be used throughout the production, unlike other materials. At the end of each performance, the glued tulle is damaged and needs to be cleaned by securing it to a head cast from the soloist's measurements using pins and damp tape tacked to the edges.

After the last performance in 2012, all the props used in the production from the largest to the smallest were carefully packed up, just like the set itself, and most of them were sent off to be stored in a container in Antwerp. The more fragile items stayed in the studios at La Monnaie. An initial inspection was carried out in June to assess the amount of restoration work required. “If anything has been lost, we use the original guidelines, inventories, designs and production records as a point of reference”, explains props manager Isabelle Courbet. In addition to a considerable number of mats and other small items kept in a metal trunk, Lulu had its very own sculpted beasts, custom-made by our team, including a crocodile, a giraffe, a gorilla, a bear and even a lion.

The lion's tail, for example, was repaired by attaching a metal rod to the back of the sculpture using an expanding foam that fills any gaps. After this, some putty is applied over the top to strengthen the repair before being sanded and repainted. This process takes about a day.

© Pieter Claes

As I write, my colleagues’ admirable work creating, preserving, remembering and restoring makes me reflect on the paradox of the passage of time. Full of both reunions and new connections, the return of Lulu is as much a marathon that began almost ten years ago at closing night as a sprint starting a few weeks before its second opening night, where a lot still hangs in the balance. For anyone who was part of the adventure in 2012, on stage, in the auditorium or backstage, Berg's opera seems to belong to the past and to a new life at the same time; it retraces and builds on the human dimension of our theatre's exciting story, bringing together an incredible wealth of talent.

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