Last Friday, Feb 13th, the Flemish opera premiered Akhnaten, an opera from 1983 by Philip Glass about the rise and fall of the Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep IV (father of the more famous Tutankhamun).
The costume design for this visually eclectic and expressionistic opera was done by Walter Van Beirendonck, with make up by Inge Grognard.
The expressive, socially engaged and graphic style of Walter Van Beirendonck was a great match for the story, in which current political issues of monotheism, autocratic systems and iconoclasm are mirrored through references to the architecture, art and politics of the 1930s (Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Frans Masereel’s woodcuts, Surrealist symbols, nazi architecture and ideology) and of course to the radical innovations of Akhnaten, who installed a monotheistic cult of the God of the sun disc, Aton.
The different stylistic periods (1980s music, 1930s architecture and art, contemporary costumes and a story from 1350 b.C.) gave the piece a lot of depth in terms of visual clues and layers: great materials to work with for Walter, who is known for his outspoken, often politically engaged work.
For the golden time of the New Kingdom of Egypt and the rise of Akhnaten, Van Beirendonck chose a lot of gold lamé pleats, with historical shapes and some winks to Issey Miyake’s pleats and the power fashion and lamé of Thierry Mugler, two designers who rose to the top of their game when Van Beirendonck was in fashion school in the late 1970s. The shiny, glittering fabrics in cheap lurex seem to be saying ‘all that glitters is not gold’, as the pharaoh’s kingdom starts to crumble, the glittering accessories became all the more cheap-looking. Once Akhnaten’s empire is finished, he packs his golden costume in a striped polypropylene carrier bag, the ultimate insult.
For the new Utopian city Achetaton, drawn in a coloured woodcut by Masereel, the dancers wear slim bodysuits in black and white streaks, a very beautiful, modern contrast with the golden pleats of the pharaoh.
Van Beirendonck’s signature can also be seen in the choice of footwear: sturdy sneakers, referencing streetwear but also military repression, and the opposite, more refined, classical heeled men’s shoes fit the symbolism of the story. Surreal shapes (lips, discs, cartoon hands, fists), trompe l’oeil effects, glittering fabrics and naïve embroidery, familiar to Walter’s fans from the ‘SHUT YOUR EYES TO SEE’ collection from AW 2013-14, give a visually meaningful identity to each character. Face implants were used to give the lead actors a kind of grotesque, uncanny expression, mimicking the new style of sculpture under Akhnaten, which was great for the close up, black-and white camera shots throughout the piece. Walter Van Beirendonck has used face implants in his visuals since his AW 1998-’99 collection ‘Believe’, which was inspired by the work of French artist Orlan, who uses plastic surgery, implants and scarification as an artistic technique.
Many more costume design stories can be told about Akhnaten, but we advise you to go see the opera in Antwerp or Ghent until March 10th!