From Design to Costume. Estonian National Opera 100

September 8–November 26, 2006



Estonian professional costume design started off at the Estonian National Opera. Olga Obolyaninova-Krümmer was the first costume designer to work in the theater – arriving from St. Petersburg she brought with her the aesthetics and skills of costume painting in manner of Mir Iskusstva. After she left for Paris, her work as a costume designer was carried on by Natalie Mei, who was in charge of creating costumes at the Estonian National Opera from 1929 until retirement in 1964. She brought remarkable quality into costume creating in terms of material, colour range and realization. More importantly, Natalie Mei established the professional culture of designs, which bear comparison with the costume designs of L. Bakst and A. Benois.


Natalie Mei acquired an artistic education at Art School Pallas where the costume designers Karin Siim-Juse and Silvia Leitu also later graduated from. Thus the Estonian costume design was in the hands of professional artists from early on, and the times when costumes were made by the actors, the stage director or the director’s wife, fell short. Natalie Mei’s energetic activity set an example and inspired her successors. After World War II she became in charge of the department of textile and fashion at the State Applied Arts Institute in Tallinn, where the students had the opportunity to focus on the creation of stage costumes. This is where Leida Klaus and Melanie Kaarma found their way into the theatre. In addition Natalie Mei passed on the secrets of costume-making in the department of set design painting to future theatre artists – Eldor Renter, Mari-Liis Küla, Meeri Säre. Georg Sander and many others continue passing on Natalie Mei’s teachings to younger generations through their artwork. The continuity of these values and knowledge over many generations is what makes the school of Estonian costume.


Costume design is a passing art and not every theater considers preserving this part of culture. The whole collection of costumes in Estonian National Opera from the pre-war era burned down along with the building on March 9, 1944. Nowadays efforts are made to preserve the best of the lot, but the lack of space and often negligence set their limits. Fortunately the costume designs were not destroyed – they have been gathered together and this ample heritage is being preserved at the Estonian Theatre and Music Museum. The versatility and quality of the collection astounds viewers from all over the world. The exhibition at hand is yet a fragment of the treasury the museum collection has got to offer.