It all started back in 2013, when Italians and Americans dedicated an entire year to the Italian Culture in the United States. San Francisco and the Bay Area have also been part of the celebrations, with a variety of events taking place in the city.
Among others, the Italian Opera has become very popular and the raising interest has led to initiatives which helped strengthen the partnership with various local institutions, eager to either build or keep a connection with the Italian heritage.
One great example is the relationship born between the Teatro di San Carlo of Naples and the Academy of Art University: through the Unite the Two Bays project, Naples has tried to build permanent avenues for cultural and economic exchanges with the Bay Area. The first idea turned into reality through an exhibition called “Treasures of Naples – Teatro di San Carlo”: launched to raise money and bring the orchestra and the chorus of the Teatro di San Carlo from Naples to San Francisco, it was also a moment to honor Giuseppe Verdi’s 200th birthday.
  Students from the Academy of Art University wearing costumes from the Teatro di San Carlo
The performance of Verdi’s Requiem in October 2013 was indeed the final moment of a journey among Italian history and culture, which also included an exhibit featuring costumes, jewels, and tapestries from the Neapolitan Opera House. As known, the Teatro di San Carlo Historical Collection dates back to the end of the 18th century and the theatre itself has been recognised as the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in Europe.
As the year came to an end, organisers considered the new-born connections so valuable that they tried to keep them also in the future. Nevertheless, after a few months, in April 2014, the costumes and the artefacts brought to San Francisco were donated to the Academy of Art University, which took a step forward in making the ‘gift’ even more exceptional.
«The Academy of Art has had a long term partnership with the Italian Institute of Culture. We have several shows during our semesters as well as abroad programs to Italy every summer when, during the seven and half weeks, students paint, draw, and learn history and architecture» said Charles Pyle, Director of School Illustration, during the “The Art of Costumes” exhibition opening.
And continued: «Then, Alessandro Squitti, who works at our school and knows Paolo Barlera very well, heard that shipping back those costumes to Italy would have been incredibly expensive. While Paolo was trying to figure out a better purpose for the costumes, Alessandro said: “We have the place to put them, we have three semesters of costumes at School of Illustration.” Thanks to Alessandro, the costumes became a fabulous addition to our university collection».
Why is this initiative so relevant for the Academy?
«We have been teaching costume figure drawing since 1996. The idea is to be on the look out for great costumes which allow our students tell stories. Opera and illustrations have a lot in common: the opera is the distillation of stories, sounds, and dress design. When someone steps out on the Opera stage, the world comes out from the characters’ mouth. If you are a good illustrator, you’ll be able to show, through your drawing, exactly the same thing without the sound».
What’s the value the costumes represent for your students?
«For our students, to have access to these costumes and what they represent – three centuries of Italian Opera – means to have access to history of fashion, costume construction and to learn character design. These costumes are so magnificent that we can only be delighted to have them. We don’t draw to strictly copy things, we draw to understand them, how they tell stories and how to interpret starting from them. With my iPhone, I can take better pictures than what my students draw. But the picture is mainly to record the facts; instead, if they draw a thing or a person, the little exaggeration, the emphasis on the scene, all the little things make the characters come to life. That’s the magic, that’s the interface of the artist interpreting that world».
Which kind of experience do you want to give to visitors?
«I want everyone to appreciate interpretative graphics, I want people to come and look at pictures that speak of great art on stage, great costumes, to know that this is the echo of the Opera. Any photograph, any drawing of the theatre experience is a silent echo and allows suspend reality and accept the magic of the Opera. And these costumes represent a long term visual vestige of that moment. Most people want to buy these drawings because they like the diversity, the capture of characters, the facial expressions, and the variety of techniques. If you take just three of them, they probably show the same thing, but each will come with a different, unique voice.»
‘The Art of the Costume’ exhibition opens, until January 9, Monday through Friday (10am -4:30pm) at the Italian Institute of Culture, 814 Montgomery Street, San Francisco.
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