One of the best things about getting involved with Scottish Opera on projects like ‘BambinO’ is that you get to work with a great team of amazing people. Everyone has an important part to play taking the project from concept to final production, the Director, the Composer, the production team, the creative departments like costume and set building to the Designers themselves. So much goes on behind the scenes to give us, the performers everything we need to bring the production to life.
To give you a flavour of the diverse range of skills used in an opera production one of the designers, Emma Belli kindly agreed to take part in an interview with me so that I could share a little insight into her world. Emma works closely with her husband Giuseppe and they have been involved in many fabulous projects together. Those of you who follow my blog may have seen some of their work before as they designed the sets and costumes for ‘La Rondine’ and ‘Sir John In Love’ whilst I was at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
Emma – What are the best things about your current job?
When I was about to start University, I saw a show at West Yorkshire Playhouse called ‘Shock Headed Peter’. It was one of the most enjoyable and stunningly visual things I’d ever seen at the theatre…. full of invention, music and dark comedy. It was Phelim’s show. So eventually getting to devise a project with him is a gorgeous thing. I feel so lucky that I get to work with lovely talented people and that I get to share this with my husband. The tremendous support of the Creative departments at Scottish Opera actually make the job rather easy. They can achieve anything you think up… and what a lovely project. It’s quite a gift to us as designers.
Is this work what you wanted to do whilst at school?
I come from a family of artists. My grandad advised me not to be one or marry one! …. because it is hard. You have to be very self-motivated and determined. So I thought I’d choose a job in the Arts that would allow me to use my wider creative skills…. But where I could get a job. I also liked history and English and was a frustrated musician. So, I started to think that theatre might be good. Then I went to a Pet Shop Boys concert. It was really theatrical and over the top. It was designed by a theatre designer David Fielding…. and I thought, ‘gosh, this is his job! I want a little bit of this’. So, at about 12 years old I started to tell people that that’s what I was going to be. When I was training, the landscape of theatre design altered and it was no longer possible to get a residency at a theatre. So actually, it’s been as hard as being an artist after all…. and I married one too! (I later worked with David Fielding on an opera production for Bregenz). I’ve never regretted pursuing it as a career.
What were your favourite subjects at school?
Art. Design Technology. English Lit. Drama and History. But I loved sport too…. and find it has lots of parallels with theatre.
Did you go on to further study, where, and what path did you take?
I did A levels at Bradford Grammar where David Hockney had given some money for a theatre. They gave me a key as I was so keen! I then went to Leeds College of Art and did a foundation year. Followed by Theatre Design BA Hons at Betton Hall which was part of Leeds University. I started an MA there too but in the same year won a design competition to design King Lear at Cambridge Arts Theatre and another competition where I won a training position with the BBC in costume. I didn’t complete the MA but moved to London to work in TV Costume… it felt like I just needed to go and get on with it.
How did you meet your partner/husband? Do you always work together? How long?
I met Giuseppe at Bretton Hall. He was the Resident Designer on my degree. After university, he was working on a low budget feature film and needed a costume designer. He called me as I had just finished some training with the BBC. We were working closely together but neither of us wanted to mess up our friendship. It took a year of meetings for tea and cake, art galleries, theatre trips and London parks before we got together. We just wanted to make sure it was going to be right and have longevity. At first, I was working long hours in TV and Giuseppe was doing mainly film special effects. We started not wanting to be apart so much and finding filming was totally exhausting and pressurised. We began to seek a way to work together. It’s been about 18 years working together now.
Do you work all around the world?
I haven’t traveled that much for work. Some designers do…. our work has traveled more widely than we have! Once a show is designed, you don’t really need to go with it when it tours. I would find it very difficult to travel outside the country at the moment as I need to be around to be a mum too.
Where do you get inspiration for your designs?
Inspiration is part research, part experience and part gut instinct.
What’s your favourite part of the design process?
I like making models and getting them to look as perfect as possible…. and the anticipation of sharing the design for the first time with the Creative team and cast. Then I like opening night when the work is finished and the pressure is off!
How difficult is it to manufacture what you visualise?
We carefully design to fit budgets and the support teams available. However, it’s surprising how often we do need to step in to finesse things. Between us, Giuseppe and I can do most things. We are very practical. We always pull it together even if we are let down. We are perfectionists and our own critics, and we keep our standards high. If we find a talented collaborator, we hold on to them for good! Over the years you find companies you trust and makers with a true talent in interpretation and realisation. Working at Scottish Opera is a joy because the skills and experience in the whole building shine.
Has there ever been anything that you visualised that couldn’t be made? Did you make adjustments?
Part of the designer’s job is to consider practicalities and technical solutions, rigging, construction etc. It involves objects but also the space around objects, the way things move and work. If something wasn’t completely thought through, it wouldn’t leave the studio. This avoids costly mistakes and time wasting later.
What’s the work that you’re most proud of?
We made West Side Story in Wandsworth Prison with Pimlico Opera. Great piece, challenging environment, an enormous impact on all of us. Theatre as rehabilitation is an extraordinary thing. We were very proud of this production.
What are your hopes and aspirations for the future?
I just want to remain interested in my work, earn enough doing it and share the best bits with my husband. I hope I can pass on my love of theatre to my children as I feel it’s made my life very rich.
Do you have any hidden talents? E.g play an instrument, sing, yoga teacher, mathematician?
I’m brilliant at soldering?! (which I use model making)
I’m a great swimmer, played netball and hockey for my county. Represented Leeds at rounders and long jump! Hmmm…. very competitive!
We have a great and full kitchen garden…. which I love to do with Giuseppe. It’s bursting with produce right now.
I’m a parish councillor.
I make special birthday cakes for my children….. using all my model making skills!
I’m an expert on Angry birds, Minecraft, Dr Who, Lego, and Playmobil.
Thank you, Emma, for taking the time to answer my questions and I hope that you all enjoy reading her fascinating insight
You can check out more of Emma and Giuseppe’s work on their website.
Here is a link to Scottish Opera’s Facebook page with some pictures of the costumes designed by Emma for ‘BambinO’