An Interview With Designer Emma Belli

Here is a picture of me with one of the designers, Giuseppe Belli and the Director, Phelim McDermott.

Guiseppe Charlotte and Phelim 02 07 2017_pp
Giuseppe Belli, Me and Phelim McDermott

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 Belli_pp
Designer Emma Belli

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.


The set for ‘La Rondine’ at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland


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?

Hidden talents…

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’





51 thoughts on “An Interview With Designer Emma Belli

  1. The photos on the Facebook page are great! It looks like a lot of fun (though that one “bambino” is looking at you as if thinking “what in the world is -that-?”. 😉 ). Good luck in the performances!

    1. One of my best friends is coming to watch the show with her baby girl who is seven months old soon I can’t wait to see how much she has grown since I last saw her and I hope she loves it.
      Best wishes

    1. It’s very striking that’s for sure, it’s a very interactive production so it’s got to deliver on many fronts. I enjoyed Emma and Giuseppe’s journey too.
      Best wishes

  2. What a great post Charlotte, it’s very interesting to hear about the set designers. All too often the cast of shows take all the attention and the set is taken for granted. A lovely insight into the journey and expectations of the set designers. X

    1. Hi Gill
      You are so right! There is so much hard work that takes place by numerous talented people in order to make a show happen. Would you find it interesting if I did more interviews like this or write about the different roles that are needed for a show to take place?
      Best wishes
      Charlotte 🙋🏼

  3. Charlotte, you look so cute in your costume! Specially love the feathers.
    Very interesting interview, great insights into the backstage elements.

  4. How fascinating. What a wonderful insight and there is so much passion in that work, and for all of you. The babies look enthralled. And that one lying on the pillows is obviously in a comfortable environment.

    1. Every performance is going to be different that’s for sure because there’s no predicting what babies and toddlers will do 😄. It’s a very stimulating environment and an interesting experience for them.
      Best wishes

  5. A great interview! It is very good to know that she builds small models first. That is just like those architects do (I believe).

    You look fantastic with the costume. The boy you handed the golden egg to is so cute. I was smiling seeing his surprising face.

    1. Can you imagine being the Belli’s child the play houses would be just brilliant, I used to make them out of cardboard boxes 😄.

      Every baby is so different some are naturally reserved and hold back a little and others want to get right in the middle of the action, it’s been brilliant to improvise our productions around their needs whilst staying on rhythm and singing in tune 💕.
      Best wishes

    1. I thought I’d be in stereotypical yellow, too much big bird hehe. I love the direction Emma took, when I had my head measured I thought I hope the plumes aren’t too high because the singing is still quite difficult and if the hat was wobbling well… but this is fun.

      I love it when the babies try to sing along with me, that is so cute.
      Best wishes

  6. Dear Charlotte,
    What a blessing to do the interview with Emma for she is full of knowledge and experience that will reward you completely. This Opera is really a blessing to many people keep the faith.

    1. I absolutely agree Rev Tim, keeping the faith is so important, each person I meet and work with along this amazing journey is like a jigsaw puzzle piece, sometimes I can see clearly where the piece fits and other times I have to wait for it to become clear 😊.
      Best wishes

  7. It must have been a lot of work to put West Side Story together in a prison! The interview is quite interesting. You must be thrilled to work with such talented people. Knowing you, you’ll soak up every bit of knowledge and experience they throw at you!! That’s how I always knew you’d be a big star.

    1. You are so lovely GP a real boost of support just as I’m getting ready to set off to Manchester. There is a little video on the post now if you’d like a smile 😁.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte 🙋🏼

  8. What a fabulous interview Charlotte
    Really interesting,we all forget what a lot of people it takes to put on such lovely performance ‘s..
    The set and your costumes are brilliant , good luck it will be interesting to seee the babies reactions 👌

    1. So many people it’s a great team, the set needs dismantling and putting back many times. Did you get chance to see the videos? There’s a link in this post and on my Facebook to Scottish Opera You Tube video and the BBC one.
      Best wishes

  9. So glad you told me to come back for the video, Charlotte! Your facial expressions to the children and your voice both help tell the story! Terrific!!

    1. I’m happy you took the time to pop back, my parents and brother were allowed to watch today, they loved watching the babies reactions and hearing and watching us all.
      Best wishes

    1. You’d love it Mary it’s just too cute. The last four shows in Tameside were fully booked, every show is unique because of the actions of our audience 😊.
      Best wishes

  10. So multi talented. The interview was excellent. And the trailer for the babies’ opera was so beautiful. Your voice, the reacting between you and the babies.
    The set pictures were great. What beautiful set designs.

    1. David and Martin our technical set Managers are doing a fantastic job Don and the MIF (Manchester International Festival) volunteers have been amazing. They had a photo with me today before we move on to another venue and I should have asked them to send me a copy for my post tonight.

      So many of the babies are so inquisitive, they love watching Laura on her cello and piano and Stuart on his percussion. Tim’s voice absolutely amazes them I love to watch their reactions.

      Best wishes

  11. She’s an expert at Angry Birds. 🙂 All the children are so cute. They absorb so much information at that age, it’s a great idea to introduce Opera to them.

    What’s wrong with marrying an Artist? 🙂 I am going to pretend like I don’t understand. At all. Thank you for sharing, Charlotte and I hope you’re having fun with the performance.

    1. I know I feel like I’m missing out I don’t do Angry Birds! My best friend came with her baby Annabelle last week she was mesmerised and Ellie said never mind babies first opera it was hers too and she loved it.

      Us artists like living on the edge 😁. Great fun.
      Best wishes

  12. I have always admired the folks who work behind the scenes. When the waves are great, I rely on the photographers to capture me having fun. It is a very selfless act and there are so many who make things come to life…the lighting techs, stage and costume designers, and the list goes on and on.

    Thanks for giving someone their due!

    1. So very true Steve. It must be very satisfying seeing your hard work pay off with every smooth, timely show. My Mum had me start my working life as the office cleaner and tea maker I was always popular when I delivered everyone’s brew just how they liked it with the right amount of milk. Never forget the importance of every cog.
      All my best

  13. Wouaw !!!! Great interview, very interesting, and , the trailer of Bambino is facinating, congratulation Charlotte, fabulous work ….and your voice, really, each year your better. Very, very proud of you Lady Rainbow Voice !!! And you know me, I only say the truth !! All the best for you Mademoiselle !!

      1. I have finish my health journey – loose and sugar blood down – I come back home tomorrow with the boat. I have some pictures and video to make clips art about Corsica –
        All the best for you chère amie – and don’t forget, You are a Fabulous Girl !!

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