April Dalton: Designing a new opera

21 October 2022

This Season sees Welsh National Opera’s latest new creation, Migrations, return to the stage, visiting venues in Cardiff, Llandudno, Plymouth, Birmingham, and Mayflower as part of our Autumn Season tour. We sat down with designer April Dalton to find out more about her and her creative process. 

‘I owe everything to my grandparents. Their garage would often be turned into a makeshift gallery with its own hand painted sign - Lancaster Gallery - to showcase mine and my brother’s creations, to which the neighbours would be invited and would pretend to bid on and buy items of our work. My grandma would often ask me to design her a ‘summer collection’ and, combined with my mum teaching me how to sew, I started to make clothes in 3D too.

What I find joyous about designing a costume is the process of getting to know a new person/character, whether it is someone who has existed at a different time in history, or a new fictional character. It’s really satisfying working on an accurate piece and learning all the intricacies of period clothing, but it’s also wonderful working on a more conceptual piece and establishing surreal personalities in abstract spaces. I usually begin with a lot of research. I find references of people from photographs, books, and films. I start to compile them into mood boards to establish a visual identity for the piece. Recently I have been using digital collage as my way of creating costume images, piecing together items I find. I sketch into these and change the shape and colours to create something new. I often like to do this alongside an image of the cast, so it is like tweaking them into a new person, or a kind of ‘alter ego’. 

In realising Migrations, I had various meetings with Sir David Pountney and Loren Elstein. What felt important was not only establishing the individual identities and aesthetics of each of the stories, but also an awareness of any similarities that connect them across eras and cultures, so that we found a through-thread to tie them all together. Loren and I would always keep each other up to date with colour and fabric choices while we were realising the designs, so that we could tailor decisions to work together. I also kept an overview of how each of the pieces related to one another, and used colour to tie the stories together, so that when all characters across stories came together in the same space, they connected in colour also.

My favourite piece of costume is Dawn’s coat because we were able to source an original Beaver Lake Cree coat. It was special to be able to use an authentic item on stage. The Bollywood costumes were also wonderful to realise in collaboration with the Bollywood Ensemble, taking advice on how best to cut trousers for the required movement and discovering the different ways of wrapping a sari that would still allow Neera to deliver the choreography. The pin-stripe man was also a fun one visually, as it was a very different aesthetic to the rest of the show. It felt more like a grotesque caricature, and this allowed us to be bold in the finish of this costume.’