Natural Dyes at the Opéra-Comique

Founded in 1714 in the twilight of Louis XIV’s reign, Paris’ Opéra-Comique is one of the oldest theaters and music halls in France. On the stage in the celebrated Favart hall run operas of the 18th and 19th centuries, on period instruments. Their costume design department is however a much more recent addition. Jérôme Savary was named head of the establishment in 2000 and launched a project to produce costumes in-house, a project that has continued since 2007 under his successor Jérôme Deschamps.
The attic atelier, below the roof above the grand foyer, has become known for its know-how and for several years now, director Christelle Morin has introduced natural dyeing, thus making the Opéra-Comique the only national stage to have its own dyeing establishment. The dyeing began with the handiwork of Sandrine Rozier, textile and costume designer as well as master trainer at Greta de la Création, du Design et des Métiers d’Art.
That the workshop was able to be born was thanks to the financial support of the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès, which allowed for the purchase of materials and dyes. In May 2013, Mârouf, savetier du Caire [Marouf, Cobbler of Cairo] was one of the first shows to use costumes naturally dyed in-house. “For this occasion, we created a whole sample range of colors, which now serves as our bible,” explains Christelle Morin. In January 2014, the opera Lakmé used an entire palette made from natural dyes. Christelle Morin emphasizes, adding that “Hanna Sjödin, the costume designer, wanted everything to be vegetable-dyed.” For the 2014-15 season closer Les Mousquetaires au couvent [The Muskateers at the Convent], all of the costumes of the people were done with indigo.
Natural dyes give an infinite range of colors based on plant extracts, naturally, but also small insects such as the deep red cochineal beetle. In the jars that flood the shelves of the workshop’s kitchen are indigos and pastels for blues, madder root for reds, mignonette for yellows, coreopsis for ochres, and tanning plants such as oak and chestnut. “We work from highly concentrated plant extracts,” explains Sandrine Rozier.
The Horticultural Critt (Center for Regional Innovation and Transmission of Technology) of Rochefort-sur-Mer recently created a very concentrated dye that assures the reproducibility of colors, a must when creating over one hundred costumes. “To give you some idea, when we dye with dried plants we need to use a quantity equivalent to 100% of the weight of the fibers being dyed. With concentrated extracts, we need between 2 and 20%.”
The dye bath of a single plant contains a whole cocktail of colorants – one reason why natural dyes blend so well with one another. Each contains a bit of the other. The dyer must analyze the plant to understand all of the nuances available to her. “The advantage of working in theater rather than in fashion is that the color chart is wider. The costume designer offers a direction rather than a precise final vision,” continues Morin.
Rozier affirms that “natural dyes will never replace synthetics, as chemistry has considerably opened our color range.” The goal, as evidenced by this project with Opéra-Comique, is to restore natural dyes to relevance in France. In terms of producing dyeing plants and mastering their processes for dyeing, France has long held a privileged place. At the Opéra-Comique, dyes are produced from French domestically raised plants that have been placed back into cultivation. Each theatrical production is now an opportunity to explore new techniques, acquire knowledge and transmit know-how.
Current architectural renovations have required the shuttering of the workshops, but by early 2017 will offer backstage artisans an entirely redesigned workspace.