Corset Up and Remember to Breathe

downloadCorsets on stage: Sometimes we see them, sometimes we don’t. Corsets have certainly made a comeback since designer Coco Chanel knocked them out of daily wear for early 20th century women. However, actors and singers often find themselves wearing corsets as part of period costumes for roles set in anywhere from the 1500s to early 1900s.

This week, there’s a noticeable intersection of laced up undergarments with singers in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh singer Kara Cornell sings the role of sculptress Camille Claudel, an artist in her own right who was assistant to Auguste Rodin, in Into the Fire for Resonance Works | Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday. The New York Times described the piece as one that “compresses a tragic life of operatic dimensions into a song cycle of great beauty and emotional resonance.”

Kara Cornell
Kara Cornell

On Sunday, final contestants in Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s Mildred Miller International Voice Competition sing at The Frick as “Undressed  – The History of Fashion in Underwear” has its weekend. The show features historical undergarments at the Point Breeze museum. Up to 10 singers selected during sessions (free to the public on Saturday at Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts) will compete for cash prizes and summer season roles. Those attending can take the exhibit before the contest and during intermission while the judges deliberate.

Kara shared her perspective as a singer most frequently corseted for one of her recurring roles, Carmen in Bizet’s opera. She’s twice sung the role for Pittsburgh Festival Opera as well as many other companies. The mezzo soprano is also often cast in “trouser roles”, but Kara brings a career singer’s perspective to the corset as a costume piece.

PITR: How often have you worn a corset for a role?

Cornell as Carmen
Cornell as Carmen

Kara: I really only wear a corset when I sing in Carmeneither the title role or the secondary character of Mercedes. So I don’t wear a corset for all of my performings, but I do Carmen enough that I decided to buy my own corset.

I’ve been able to dodge the corset in a lot of Handel and Mozart operas because I usually play the boy/men in those operas! Lucky me! As a singer who does not enjoy being bound up, I am lucky to have only worn tight corsets on the outside of my costume.

PITR:  Some say breathing against the corset might be at first different but a sometimes helpful experience. How does a singer learn to adapt to underpinnings that might appear to hinder breathing?

Kara:  Some of my colleagues really enjoy singing with a corset, and wear their personal corset under their audition outfit! The reason for this is because some singers like to feel a resistance when they breathe – expansion of the ribs is important for a lot of singers, so pushing the ribs against a corset or a tight dress helps them feel engaged around their entire ribcage.

Before I purchased my own corset, I would expand my ribs before I was tied into the corset. Sometimes they would be so tight that I couldn’t breathe! The corset I purchased ends above my belly button, so it makes me feel like I can let my stomach expand and I’m not as smushed.

PITR:  The sculptress Camille Claudel would have worn an Edwardian Corset, which creates a different silhouette than prior eras. It was known not only to constrict the waist and changed the emphasis on the stomach, but it caused the hips to jut out. Some women developed back injuries.

Kara:  I could also imagine Camille Claudel going sans corset, as she needed to have mobility in her body, in order to sculpt.

PITR:  Costumers also have multiple challenges…

Kara:  Buying my own assures that I have a well fitting corset that makes me look great AND makes me feel like I can still breathe. Another big issue with outer corsets is removing them quickly–if there is a quick change into another costume, untying a corset can be a real pain to do in 15 seconds.

Also, many quick changes happen in minimal lighting, because there isn’t always time to run back to the dressing room. The lack of light behind the stage curtain also makes it hard to see where the ties are on the corset, so a lot of time can be wasted. Some costume designers therefore cut a corset vertically and add velcro. This seems like a nice idea, but doesn’t always work because now the singer’s breathing can literally pop open the velcro!

22366282_10155832145656974_1927005191475115616_nOf course, singers in concert while singing from a role would not bring their own corset along for events such as Resonance Works program or a recital setting like the Miller Competition. No such trappings “out of costume” for these singers. But when you’re attending a full-out Elizabeth, Victorian, and Edwardian period production you may assume the actresses are in corsets. Most often, cast members work “laced up” for the whole show.

Aspects of period movement that include sitting, standing, and breathing in a corset are part of training. Nothing may accentuate one’s waist like a corset, but, then again, nothing may bring on the “vapors” as quickly on a hot day.

Women in the 20th century may have merrily torn off their corsets or burnt their bras, but laced undergarments give us an idea of the women who went before–how they had to get dressed (often only with assistance) and how their movement was limited while corseted.

On stage, knowing yourself and your corset are requirements for a good experience on stage. Just remember to breathe!

About the Events

Into the Fire/A Poet’s Love is presented by Resonance Works | Pittsburgh on Friday at 8 pm, PYCO School of Music Recital Hall, Wexford, and Saturday at 8 pm, Levy Hall, Rodef Shalom Congregation, Oakland.

The Mildred Miller International Voice Competition of Pittsburgh Festival Opera finals take place on Sunday from 2 to 5 pm in the intimate auditorium of the Frick Art & Historical Center, Point Breeze. A special online promo code for PITR readers (MILLER2017) now provides tickets for $10. All students are admitted free.

On Saturday, admission is free for all to hear the 20 semifinalists sing from 11 am to 1 pm and 3 to 6 pm, Kresge Theatre, Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts.

Undressed: A History of Fashion in Underwear opens on Saturday, October 12 at the Frick. Those attending the Miller finals on Sunday may also visit the Frick galleries.