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Becoming Queen Elizabeth I

19 March 2019

Elizabeth I was Queen of England and Ireland from 17 November 1558 until her death on 24 March 1603. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, Elizabeth was the last of the five monarchs of the House of Tudor. She is also the subject of our Spring 2019 Season which includes the first revival of our critically acclaimed production of Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux

The explosive operatic drama of unrequited love, forbidden happiness, jealousy, betrayal and revenge was inspired by a historical incident — the execution for treason of Roberto Devereux, the favourite of Queen Elizabeth I— but, as in many works of the time, history is used merely as a springboard from which the operatic imagination can soar. Donizetti’s Queen Elizabeth I is hardly the innocent Virgin Queen of the history books; instead, we have a scarlet-clad Elisabetta.  

The role of Elisabetta is a notoriously difficult part and this Season we are delighted to welcome the outstanding Joyce El-Khoury as our Queen. Her interpretation projects a woman in some respects like any woman in love. 

She’s a fascinating character to play and I’ve learned a lot about her and actually about myself. She is so dramatic and theatrical in the way she speaks. All of her music is over the top. She’s in constant conflict between Elizabeth the woman and Elizabeth the Queen. Elisabetta is now at the top of the favourite roles to perform. She’s pretty spectacular.

Joyce El-Khoury

The Tudor period was an extravagant period, and vanity was perhaps a prime ingredient. Court life was flamboyant and people dressed to impress. As monarch, it was Elizabeth’s duty to dress better than everyone else – a prime feature in our striking production. Clad in Vivienne Westwood-inspired costumes, embellished with leather and metallic detail, Elisabetta’s plunging neckline would not be out of place in Carmen or Manon Lescaut. Her initial outfit was designed to create the same image that was engineered for Elizabeth during her reign - wealth, authority and power.

This costume certainly helps you feel like the boss. It’s quite empowering – the red and the leather and of course, the claw. I think it’s an absolutely beautiful design and I would probably wear it in real life.

Joyce El-Khoury

Queen Elizabeth I was celebrated for her ageless glamour. Known for her ghostly face, white skin was fashionable in Tudor times as it distinguished the rich from the poor. In her case, it was also used to complete the ‘mask of youth’ and as the years past, more layers of makeup were applied to hide her ageing features and facial scars.  Her face, neck and hands were painted with ceruse (a mixture of white lead and vinegar); her lips were coloured with a red paste made from beeswax and plant dye and her eyes were lined with kohl. Courtesy of MAC, the well-known cosmetic brand that has been supporting WNO for over 10 years, WNO’s make-up department were able to recreate Elizabeth’s iconic look on-stage for Elisabetta.

Another recognisable feature of Queen Elizabeth I was her truly revolutionary reddish-gold hair. 

I think this wig in incredible. When I have it on I feel it gives me a sense of status

Joyce El-Khoury

The colour of your hair became more than just a sign of beauty or appearance during the Tudor period. It was viewed as proof of legitimate Tudor decent. Although a natural redhead, for most of her life, Elizabeth wore wigs. Displaying the red hair inherited from her father gave the lie to all those rumours of illegitimacy that had plagued her girlhood. There were public and political reasons too. Red and white were also the colours of St George, England’s patron saint. Those courtiers who dyed their hair or their beards red, to follow Elizabeth’s lead, were not merely declaring their loyalty to the queen; they and she were also making a statement of standing apart, in Protestant England, from dark-haired and less pale-skinned Catholic Europe.

Red and white were the Elizabethan brand and that brand has been one of the most successful in history, as recognisable now as it would have been in Elizabeth’s own day.

We went behind the scenes with Joyce El-Khoury to see the transformation from glamorous soprano to formidable Queen.