Friday, 10 January 2014

Shoes in Opera

This article first appeared in

Are you standing comfortably? Then I'll begin!

Recently I was passed a clip of Anna Netrebko singing Verdi at the Mariinsky. The aria, Veni t'afretta from Macbeth, is seriously demanding yet the remarkable Russian soprano performs in a pair of high-heeled shoes that would scare off vertiginously challenged catwalk models.

Conventional wisdom for the performer is that one should wear shoes that are comfortable. What does that comfort mean, though? Going to an audition, performing for a group of strangers who would like to use you in their show is, for many of us, quite a nerve-racking time. Choosing a pair of shoes that you don't have to worry about is a sensible idea. You can get on and concentrate on singing without using part of brain for, well, balancing!

However, perhaps you want to show the panel what you can do, how you engage with a character or concept, or simply like to (literally) give yourself your own platform on which to perform? You might feel more comfortable psychologically wearing specific shoes. For some men wearing shows with a bit of a heel is rather important  for the impression of stature it provides the wearer as much as the audience: even former French President Nicholas Sarkosy famously wore shoes with taller heels.

Assuming you've successfully negotiated the audition and you find yourself preparing for a show your choice of footwear becomes even more important. If you are involved in a staged production there will be a protracted rehearsal period. These days opera and music theatre are breaking out of dedicated theatres and happening all over the place: in pubs, warehouses, all manner of disused buildings or even simply outside. You have the contract, so the pressure is off here - you can really wear what you want. Hollywood actor Matt Damon has a no-nonsense approach to rehearsal:
one of his least favourite parts of the film process is the pre-shoot costume fitting. "I try to get in and get out as fast as I can," he says. "When we get to the shoes, I get the most comfortable shoes that I can, because I don't want to stand around all day in shoes that nobody is going to look at."
However, plenty of people are going to worry about what you wear on your feet. Some people have that responsibility as a job. At the end of last year, Cheryl Knight of the Royal Opera costume department spoke to Radio 4 about her job as footwear supervisor:
‘Opera shoes? What a niche job! But they are important,’ said Cheryl, stressing the importance of comfort to opera singers who have to act as well as sing. ‘The Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad was asked what it took to make a great Isolde and she said “A comfortable pair of shoes”.
photo from
You can listen to the radio interview at the Royal Opera website, here.

Sometimes the shoe can even be an important part of the show itself. Can you imagine if the Prince were unable to fit the shoe to Cinderella's foot in Massenet's Cendrillon (right)? Mark Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas included an entire aria about Jimmy Choo shoes in their most recent opera Anna Nicole.

So a "good" pair of shoes somehow manage to combine the necessity for stability and comfort with the capability of leaving an impression on an audience and galvanising the person wearing them. No tall order then! The glamour of shoes may be what people remember but they are the most functional part of clothing.

What's your rule of thumb for putting your best foot forward in audition or rehearsal?

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