“The architecture is very open and inviting, a lot of people think the Opera is something only for high society, but it’s for everyone, and this building really attests to that.” -Elina Ceder
Approaching the Oslo Opera House it was raining the kind of rain people refer to as “Norway rain,” the cold kind that hits you sideways. In the days leading up to this I had a vision: a beautiful building, a beacon of exquisite architecture and fanciful design, a light and idyllic piece of Nordic landscape manufactured into the gathering place of the Norwegian elite, the opera.
I wrinkled my nose realizing this wasn’t happening – I wouldn’t be able to capture the sun rays beaming off of the fjord, and the glowing marble beneath my feet. The rain soaked my camera lens, and as I fought with my umbrella against the wind. I slipped on the marble rooftop. Sitting in wet pants on top of the 4,27 billion nok structure, succumbing to my embarrassment as Chinese tourists walked by me, I thought “dette er norsk.” (This is Norwegian).
Mother nature had helped snap me back to reality, the reality of what Norway is about, what the Oslo Opera House is about: the intimate connection with nature, tactile things, and modesty. Forget the sun, because rain is real.
Inside the building I sat beside the golden oak panels of the tall waving wood wall, letting the sun warm my face as it beamed through the glass ceiling, I tried convincing myself this was a special “moment.” Minutes later a petite girl with long wavy copper hair came out and greeted me; now that was a “moment”: her pale skin, blue eyes, and copper hair in the foreground of the white marble building, glimmers of blue sky, and curving oak wall – it was certainly artistic. Meet Elina Ceder, the thirty two year old hat maker of the Norwegian Opera and Ballet.
Soft spoken, sweet, and intriguing, she giggled as my umbrella tie broke sending water everywhere as it burst open. I gathered my things and she led me to the back. Signing in, then swiping a security card at about ten doors, it felt like the Wizard of Oz. We arrived at her studio, a room larger than my apartment, filled to the brim with hats, head forms, fabrics, and boxes.
Having been on the team for well over two years, Elina smiled as she pointed to a furry mask on a shelf, “The first piece I made here was for Peer Gynt, by Ibsen. We had to make over 40 masks of rabbits, chickens, and horses.” She remembers this fondly, but proudly notes that her favorite pieces to make were the elaborate headpieces with feathers and jewels for Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella).
We took a walk down the hallways which were bustling with elegant ballerinas (with the tiniest waists I’ve ever seen). Elina took me from room to room meeting shoe makers, clothes pressers, seamstresses, archivists, craftsmen, fabric printers – everyone. The sound of hammers, wood saws, and forklifts, to paintbrush strokes, folding garments, and sketching pencils – the backstage truly lives. With hundreds if not thousands of rooms, we saw them all.
Arriving back at the millinery studio, I asked Elina, “What is it about hats that brings the theater alive?” She looked at me then turned towards the workstation and said, “Well… actually, what do you guys think?” two heads popped up from behind a mountain of hats, they were her two colleagues Gunn and Gund, both senior milliners at the Opera. They started discussing their thoughts, remarking on the history of hats. Gund, her face framed with stylish glasses, remarked, “No matter what the outfit is, a hat can make it special.” Gunn delved into a topic of the time periods, protective qualities from the rain and sun, and the magical aura of a hat. All three of them agreed that hats are the icing on the cake of a costume, and within theater they represent actors “who wears many hats,” literally and metaphorically.
Sitting down for coffee upstairs in the cafe we were in the company of American retiree tourists who had come off of a cruise ship. I cringed as an older woman said in a Brooklyn accent, “pardon my reach, I just need a napkin.” Elina laughed, and I began asking her questions. Who is this young woman behind the magical hats of one of the most attention garnering opera houses in the world?
Born and raised in Finland, the red haired beauty loved design from a young age. She studied costume design in Finland, then pursed further education in millinery in Sweden where she was chosen to work for the Norwegian Opera and Ballet. While work is her main focus she can also be found at rock concerts, shopping for vintage clothing, or traveling. Having been to Tokyo twice, she can’t help but remark on the notable similarities in culture between the Nordics and Japan – the juxtaposition yet integration between nature and industrialism, and between the old fashioned and modernity.
From my own interest in architectural design and the way people function within spaces I couldn’t help but asking, “What is it about this building that makes it different from other opera houses? What does it do to people?” She said, “The architecture is very open and inviting, a lot of people think the Opera is something only for high society, but here it’s for everyone, and this building really attests to that.” She hit the nail on the head. We spent a while discussing how “dette er norsk,” Norway being a place of openness, a place where nature meets society, a place where things don’t always make sense, but are just Norwegian, and it all blends with fluidity.
Finally, I said, “The last question, what does the Oslo Opera want people to take away when they’ve come here?” Elina replied, “You should leave with feelings. You should be touched.”
In September 2017 Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, a modern ballet, will debut at the Oslo Opera House, and Elina is responsible for crafting all of the hats and masks. Having hand made thousands of pieces for the Norwegian Opera and Ballet, Elina is most excited about this production – she will be flying her parents in from Finland for the opening. With the same production team and director, Marit Moum Aune, as Ibsen’s Ghosts, the Norwegian National Ballet’s biggest success, the stars are the limit for Hedda Gabler. Perhaps, the strong female role will break the glass ceilings of the Oslo Opera House, so to speak.
As I walked out the doors I saw in the distance a little glass statue in the fjord, Monica Bonvicini‘s She Lies. In a very reflective moment I thought, “That little statue looks like a glass hat for the Opera House.” A hat, floating in the fjord, not on the head of the house, but already broken off.
And, dette er norsk.
(Thank you Todd Rouhe, my “Architectural Representation: Abstraction” professor at Columbia for introducing me to the Oslo Opera House in 2010, and for publishing my project that semester in Abstract (Columbia GSAPP). Thank you very much as well to Elina Ceder!)