Israeli costume designer Buki Shiff makes opera shine

Melanie Abrams meets the costume designer whose creations are on display in opera houses across the world


As the Opera: Power, Passion and Politics exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum makes clear, costume is a crucial part of the spectacle that is opera. And an Israeli designer, Buki Shiff, is making waves in the world’s opera houses, most recently at the Royal Opera House’s glitzy production of Rossini’s Semiramide.

She created Queen Semiramide’s metallic embroidered robe, a shimmering gold sheath for a princess, and an Indian entourage modelled on the Maharajahs’ legendary magnificence.

Born and still based in Tel Aviv, Shiff has created costumes for some of the best loved operas including Madama Butterfly, Don Giovanni and Faust. Her extravagant, witty work has been seen on stages from La Scala Milan to the Sydney Opera House and she has won critical acclaim including the best costume designer gong at the International Opera Awards in 2013.

Working on Semiramide chimed with Shiff as “the action takes place in Babylonia, the Iraq of today, so near where I live,” she says, and also allowed her to showcase her signature mash-up of styles, periods or sources, by referencing an ancient era in a contemporary context.

Her clothes for the lead were based on the chic Qatari royal, Sheikha Mosa for her “strong mix of East and West,” she says, as they “are closed and modest [similar to Orthodox Jewish dress] but with a Western silhouette and colour choices of purple, black and white.” She added twists like the heavily embroidered Arabic pattern.

New styles were added to her repertoire, like the Indian entourage whose fabrics and embroideries were based on Maharajah imagery: “My costumes have to make the audience believe what is happening on stage.”

For any one opera, Shiff often has hundreds of complicated costumes to create. Semiramide’s 300-plus costumes took a year to complete. “We work with people of different shapes and sizes and we can’t cover their mouth or restrict their body as they need to be able to move freely and sing,” she says.

Her favourite costumes are the most theatrical. Take La Calisto by Francesco Cavalli, her first production at the Royal Opera House in 2008, where the costumes were spliced between animal and human and, “we had to see how the performers could move, sing and act” .

Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Romeo and Juliet, and other movies were her earliest inspiration, thanks to the cinema 200 metres from the family home. Her daily visits inspired her to study film and theatre design at the nearby Tel Aviv University in the late 1970s, after studying art and sculpture at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.

While working at the Beersheba Theatre on costume and stage design in 1989, she presented her portfolio to New York theatre and opera director, David Alden, who was visiting the Israeli Opera for Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach and looking to work with local talent. He loved her vivid imagination and they have been working together ever since. He has directed the ROH production of Semiramide.

“I was lucky,” says Schiff, as living in Israel meant knowing fewer theatre contacts.

“David broke me into the international arena as other directors like Harry Kupfe and Richard Jones saw my work and asked me to work for them.”

She still collaborates with these directors as well as Barrie Kosky and Robert Carson and this tight coterie, she says, is the secret of her success. “My style suits their opera and vision.”

It’s been a busy season for Shiff. Her madcap kilt-wearing roller-skating Scottish soldiers are currently on stage in Jacques Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène for Berlin’s Komische Oper to December 25, a production also featuring a male dance troupe in backside-exposing Lederhosen; and her bright multi-coloured graphic outfits for Sergei Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges were recently at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

Shiff has also extended her talents into ballet. She designed the costumes for the Ballett Zurich’s new Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which runs to April 2018 at the city’s opera house.

The vibrant, comedic costumes included black glitter tutus with small lights as well as a hoop skirt with oversized colourful cupcakes for the Sugar Plum Fairy.

“I had to do a prototype for each costume which I’d never done before to test the dancers’ ease of movement,” she said, “and I couldn’t use every fabric I wanted as the dancers must move and have to be free and they sweat a lot so you can’t use things they can’t breathe in.”

As to the future, Shiff is returning to the Israeli Opera in 2019 to design costumes for Verdi’s La Traviata, which she has never dressed before. She is looking forward to making more than 300 costumes within a tighter set-up as the Israeli Opera is a fifth of the size of European houses.

“One person in the Israeli Opera does what five or six people do in European Opera Houses,” she says.

Let the overture begin.

‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, to 25 February 2018

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