Recreating the Fashions of Ancient Egypt for Akhnaten

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten in a scene from Phelim McDermott's spring 2016 English National Opera presentation of Akhnaten, a co-production with LA Opera; Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten in a scene from Phelim McDermott’s spring 2016 English National Opera presentation of Akhnaten, a co-production with LA Opera; Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Many opera goers may not realize how much costume design is involved in telling a production’s story. Award-winning costume designer Kevin Pollard shared some interesting tidbits about how costume creation plays a role in informing the audience and moving the story forward in this season’s Akhnaten.

Most of what the world understands about the ancient Egyptian royals is theory, based on hieroglyphics and artifacts that captured the world’s attention in the 1920s, when Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered.  Pollard sought to find an innovative way of interpreting ancient Egypt while maintaining the awe of viewing a new world, never before seen.  He has, through costume design, intricately woven together a simultaneous sense of history and the transition of time, as well as the struggles of both the royal family and their subjects.

Kevin Pollard's costume designs for the chorus in Akhnaten (2016); Photo: English National Opera/LA Opera

Kevin Pollard’s costume designs for the chorus in Akhnaten (2016); Photo: English National Opera/LA Opera

Pollard’s costume design is an amalgam of worlds colliding – from ancient Egypt, to colonialism, to the present day – layered together. He began by focusing on the chorus. He started with a 1920s style but appearing partially mummified, rotted, and caked in mud and dried earth, as though the characters had been entombed for a long time. Topped with animal headdresses, depicting the ancient polytheistic gods, Pollard captures a world caught between its buried past and emerging future. The production’s jugglers tie into the same earthy feel, as the desert itself, with their color palette and fabric design representing the dry, cracked landscape.

The royal family came next. Queen Tye, the “Queen Mother” of her era, was influenced by Britain’s Queen Mary, who was George V’s queen consort at the time of the unearthing of Tutankhamen’s tomb. She is the merging of these two classic eras. Nefertiti begins as an electric-blue haired version of her highly recognizable bust and transforms into the iconic blue, lampshade-shaped headdress of the famous sculpture.

Kevin Pollard's costume design for Nefertiti

Kevin Pollard’s costume design for Nefertiti in Akhnaten (2016); Photo: English National Opera/ LA Opera

While the costumes for the Egyptian citizens portray oppression, the pharaoh and his family are brilliantly adorned. This is a world of opulence and wealth, bejeweled and encrusted in gold. The royals’ hands and feet are covered in gold leaf signifying their “untouchable” lifestyle. They did nothing for themselves, from being dressed to being carried from one location to another.

Pollard expresses this opulence in another way. There is a weightiness and isolation in the royals’ costumes. From the young pharaoh’s coronation gown, with its heavy layers and caged-hoop underskirt, to his daughters’ entangled length of shared blue hair, symbolizing the deeply intertwining family cocoon they are symbolic of their separation from the outside world of their subjects, which eventually leads to their downfall.

As the pharaoh is reborn from the traditional world into a new kingdom with a monotheistic religion, Akhnaten and Nefertiti begin a morphing process. Inspired by the unusual hieroglyphic images portraying Akhnaten with effeminate or hermaphroditic features, and the 80s British music duo, Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye, who had plastic surgery to resemble each other, Pollard creates a royal couple who rule together as one. He plays with blurred body image and the dualities between male and female. As they move into their modern world they start to become one, through a surreal costuming shift into sheer red robes, showing the transformation of their bodies underneath. Pollard was interested in portraying the ambiguous nature of their relationship and bringing fresh imagery to a long unresolved puzzle.

Over a period of two years, Pollard designed and supervised the construction of costumes, wigs, headdresses and make-up designs for about 130 performers. His biggest challenges were designing costumes which would not hinder, impede or obscure the sight, hearing or hands of the jugglers, and managing the physicality and difficulty of Akhnaten’s onstage costume changes, assisted only by his fellow performers.

When asked about any secrets or details to keep an eye out for in Akhnaten’s costumes, Pollard said, “Look for the doll’s head.”

Join us this November for LA Opera’s Akhnaten and see if you can spot it.

For more information about and to purchase tickets to Akhnaten, click here. Contains nudity; parental discretion advised.

Erin Knell is a student at California State University, Northridge majoring in journalism with a minor in English. Her previous internship experiences have involved public relations for a small documentary film, an event at the Valley Performing Arts Center and The Museum of the San Fernando Valley. She has been published in several literary magazines and for syndication online.

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