Marriage as a placeholder

The opera Il matrimonio segreto (the secret marriage) will premiere at Opera Forward Festival. This opera is made extra special by the fact that it’s created in collaboration between three opera houses and offers a lot of room for young talent. Collin met with Francesco Cocco and Federica Miani. These young opera designers won the Dutch Opera Design Award, which was created to foster the development of young set and costume designers.

As part of the award, the duo had the opportunity to realise their design concept for Il matrimonio segreto. Collin met Francesco and Federica at Dutch National Opera & Ballet, where they were supervising the final stage of execution of their set and costume designs.

Michel Vanderhoven Photography


On working as designers for opera sets and costumes
Federica studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice and Francesco at the Università Iuav, Venice’s school of architecture and design. Both started off with a broad curriculum in visual arts, but specialised in costume design and set design respectively. They started joining competitions together in order to establish their careers and have the opportunity to see their concepts realised. They believe that intrinsic motivation is important, as well as an entrepreneurial mindset. Federica: ‘In art school, no one tells you what to do, so it’s really just you and your passion. You have to be very strong and steadfastly.’ Francesco adds: ‘In a way the academy introduces you to the world of competition. It’s not competition in the sense that you have to be a better designer than anyone else. Rather, it’s about having the tools for the trade, being in the right place at the right moment and having the right idea in mind.’

‘we’re not afraid to say to each other “your work is shit, you have to try something else!”’

Another important skill, Francesco and Federica emphasise, is being able to distance yourself from the work or design you created. At the Accademia, teachers offered them feedback on their work, but once graduated, they were on their own most of the time. This is why they believe working as a team is important: ‘We have to give our real, sincere opinions about each other’s work,’ says Francesco, ‘so we’re not afraid to tell each other: “your work is shit, you have to try something else!”. In other words: it’s important to be absolutely honest with your partner so you can build something of real value together.’

Michel Vanderhoven Photography

On the design concept for Il matrimonio segreto
Together the duo developed their ideas for their concept and prepared for the competition for the Dutch Opera Design Award. With the help of Monique Wagemakers, the director of Il matrimonio segreto, the duo further developed their concept.

‘What I’ve learned during my studies is that you have to start from the text, because it’s there that everything is to be found,’ says Federica. ‘Obviously, you have to interpret the text. The life of each character is important for the costume design, and you also have to understand what they feel and experience. If you can answer all of these questions, then you can put together a complete image of the character, one that may not appear on a first reading of the text. And this is what we did with Il Matrimonio Segreto.’

‘Italy is the last major western European country yet to legalize same-sex marriages.’

Francesco explains: ‘We really listened to the opera before we started on the project. We discussed it a lot and uncovered some main themes. One of them was the obsession for marriage that affects all the characters in the opera. Everyone is absolutely obsessed with marriage, but almost nobody wants to marry for love. Rather, they want marriage in order to gain money, a title or just sex. The only couple in the opera that is truly in love has to keep this a secret. So the opera makes you think about the meaning of marriage itself: how is it related to true love? Or is marriage perhaps a placeholder for something else? These are all relevant topics for us in Italy at the moment, because they’re altering the laws about marriage as we speak: Italy is the last major western European country yet to legalize same-sex marriages.’

Federica: ‘In Il matrimonio segreto there is this couple, hiding their secretly arranged marriage. We wondered: where would one typically hide? We tried to think of a place that could reflect an obsession for marriage, fake or real, and we came up with this fake universe made of plastic bags; a stage full of garment bags, that could also keep a secret.’ Francesco: ‘Of course, you put in something of your own, for example your philosophy or general aesthetic ideas. However, if you really open your mind and your feelings to what the opera is telling you, then the right idea pops up at some moment.’

Il matrimonio segreto is op 18 & 23 maart te zien in de Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam. Bestel nu jouw tickets!