Meriem Bahri is a French and Tunisian costume designer praised for her “sumptuous array of period-perfect costumes” by the Chicago Tribune. After completing a PhD in science (2010, Université de Lille), she turned definitively to her great passion for costumes and art history when she moved to Chicago. She collaborates regularly with two groups specializing in baroque opera: as costume designer for Haymarket Opera Company since 2011, and as assistant to the costume designer for the Boston Early Music Festival since 2013. Meriem Bahri has also brought her designing skills to the Beethoven Festival, the Laboratory School, Wheaton College, Elements Contemporary Ballet, Balam Dance Theater, International Voices Project, the Joffrey Academy of Dance, and the Newberry Consort. The 2017-2018 season will include new collaborations with Ensemble Dal Niente (Chicago), Nordic Baroque Dancers (Sweden) and Opera Lafayette (Washington DC).
What is the story of how you first came to love music and opera?
I took music lessons when I was young and sang with choirs. I tried playing several instruments but I was more interested by dance and didn’t continue practicing music. Later, I discovered opera through my passion for costume designing and, to my surprise, I fell in love with baroque music.
What is the biggest challenge you face as an artist?
My costume ideas are often limited by the budget of the company with whom I’m working and that can be a bit frustrating. On the other hand, it’s a good mental challenge to be creative on a budget. The most important thing is that I’m given carte blanche to design.
What inspires you?
Everything! Art museums are my number one source of inspiration, but sometimes I take pictures of the sky at sunset just to remember a particular combination of colors. It’s also important for me to see other designers’ work to tease out my own concepts about design.
Do you have a favorite opera?
Not really, but I do love La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers by Charpentier. It was one of the first operas I worked on, and because it’s written in French, my native language, I can truly appreciate the poetry of the words. Also, the fact that this opera was never finished adds some mystery to it!
Do you have any favorite books about music?
I can’t think of a book dealing purely about music, but my favorite one about opera is “Féerie d’Opéra” by Jérôme de La Gorce. It’s actually made after an exhibition about opera sets, machines and costumes in France from 1645 to 1765. Every page is an inspiration. It is not in print anymore and I had to rely on a copy for years until I finally found someone who was willing to sell his copy.
What else are you reading?
I like reading biographies, autobiographies and historical fiction. I’m currently reading the memories of the great actress, Sarah Bernhardt. I also cherish the arts and aesthetics of La Belle Epoque.
Who are your favorite 17th- and 18th-century composers?
I appreciate several of them without having a particular favorite one.
If you were stranded on a desert island, is there one piece of music you would like to have with you?
I’m a real city girl, there is no way I would end up on a desert island! And if I did, it would be against my will. I’m not sure I would have the time to select one specific piece of music before being kidnapped by pirates!
What do you love about HOC?
The commitment of each member of the team: on stage, backstage, in the pit and in the office. It’s a lot of work to make these historically informed productions happen.
Do you have a favorite memory from a past HOC event?
Telemann’s Don Quichotte in 2015. Catchy music, friendly cast (lot of fun backstage!) and the birth of our mascot, Sancho Panza’s donkey, “Dapple,” made by the incredibly talented artist Zuleyka Benitez.
What is your favorite thing to do when you’re not making art?
Two things I’ll never find boring: thrift shopping and rethinking for the umpteenth time the lay-out and decoration of my apartment (which usually lead to a new excuse for thrift shopping).
What is the first thing you think about in the morning?
That my bed is so comfy!
Do you have any heroes/heroines?
People able to think outside of their cultural/societal box.
What music do you listen to most often?
I listen to many different styles. It depends on my mood!
If you had not entered into your current career what do you think you would have done instead?
Since I have a scientific background but also a passion for design, I would have been an architect!