A Well Dressed Illusion: Inside the LA Opera Costume Shop
I’ve never looked at it this way, but if you’ve got a sweet tooth for creative clothing then the LA Opera Costume Shop is your candy store. Not that anyone can actually walk in and buy anything, but this morning we’re browsing the goods and I’m beginning to understand why opera glasses can be a theatergoer’s best friend.
Kathy Kwon, an independent publicist and sometime liaison with LA Opera, pointed out the other day that May is “opera month.” And while I’m thinking that this could simply be a savvy marketing tool, it’s also true that Los Angeles is showcasing several productions: Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Ahmanson is an American classic, but the others – Long Beach Opera’s “An American Soldier’s Tale” (Stravinsky’s music, Vonnegut’s libretto) with “A Fiddler’s Tale” by Wynton Marsalis, plus LA Opera’s first-time stabs at “Thaïs” (Massenet) and “A Streetcar Named Desire” (Previn) – are little known by most of us or not known at all. So it’s not just opera month, as Kwon says, but a time for new discoveries.
The LA Opera Costume Shop is actually a 31,000 square foot warehouse on Alameda Street in downtown Los Angeles. In the front of the building there’s sewing and designing and lots of collaborative work going on, but push through the doors at the back and the rear of the building contains double-tiered racks with hundreds, maybe thousands, of opera production costumes. The feeling one has is that of stumbling across buried or hidden treasure.
“Not all makeovers are glamorous,” Jenny Green tells us.
Jenny Green is LA Opera’s Costume Director and she’s been with the company for 11 years. An imposing woman with an accent from across the pond, she announces that our coterie of visiting writers and photographers are going to find out how “designers get their inspiration, and how the fashion of today intermingles with period costumes of 100 years ago.” Intermittently, we’ll be stopping in on Wigmaster Darren Jinks. In his clutches, so to speak is a reserved young woman named Melinda Brown, who normally spends her time squirreled away in the stockroom. Maybe it’s on purpose, but at the moment she’s sort of a plain Jane.
“But today we are going glamorous. We are going to showcase ‘La Traviata.’” The leading light of this popular Verdi opera is the consumptive Violetta Valéry, a Parisian call-girl with a heart of gold. Within a couple of hours, Miss Brown “is going to become a very glamorous French courtesan of the Art Deco period.”
Opera aficionados know that “La Traviata” (which means “the fallen woman,” but not while ice skating) was composed in the early 1850s and that Art Deco raised its pearly, sequined head several decades later. Well, we should thank director and designer Marta Domingo for that (opera settings are routinely moved backwards or forwards in time). LA Opera staged this production eight years ago, and while it differs from the company’s other “La Traviatas,” we need only recall Puccini’s “La Rondine,” which Marta Domingo also directed and decked out in opulence and finery, to glean something of her taste for operatic glitter.
In short, Melinda Brown is on her way to becoming a denizen of the Roaring ‘20s, where she’ll likely be hanging out with Scott and Zelda. The renowned fashion designer Paul Poiret is perhaps this production’s chief inspiration.
Jinks explains that he’s going to secure Brown’s hair under a wig cap so that it will then accommodate the wig that he’s selected. Although he could forgo the wig altogether and style her hair, Jinks essentially points out that she’d be in the chair for two hours and by then, who knows, the rest of us would be long gone.
In the meantime, what we learn is that the inside of a wig is made of fine lace and custom-fitted to the wearer’s head. The hair is just that, human hair, with 60,000 to 80,000 strands per wig that demands 40 to 60 hours of labor. Custom-made, they can be valued from $3,000 to $5,000 each. Jinks also says that the more hair a wig has the more “wiggy” it looks, “so it has less hair than an average head of hair.” I didn’t know that; did you?
We’ll return and check up on them in a while. Jinks is going to apply Violetta’s makeup, his idea being to evoke the thin-browed, deeply hooded eye one might associate with Clara Bow by way of Erté.
“Creating a magical world”
In a nearby dressing room we encounter Janine Allen, LA Opera’s Head of Wardrobe, and one of her wardrobe assistants, Charlyn Trenier. We also get to feast our eyes on Christina Leinicke, who normally spends her days as an assistant cutter/draper, but who is about to be sumptuously dressed as Donna Anna, one of Don Giovanni’s many, many love interests in Mozart’s opera of seduction and revenge.
“Don Giovanni” is set in the 17th century and so Leinicke is soon wearing paniers, also called hen baskets, but better described as hip cushions that flare out a couple of feet on either side. Think of hoop skirts or farthingales and be thankful you were born in the 20th century – or 21st if you’re a precocious reader. If Leinicke was about to go onstage a couple of dressers would be on hand to guide her, like tugboats escorting an ocean liner from its berth to the open sea.
Gary Murphy is the Director of Communications and Public Relations for LA Opera. “When artists wear these costumes,” he says, “not only do they have to look good but they actually have to walk, talk, sing, breathe and really (show that they’re) comfortable.”
Despite her 36”-24”-150” figure, Leinicke looks quite appealing. Jenny Green explains that this panier is a period shape, as is the bodice, but that the outfit is inspired by rather than faithful to the era. “Unlike film,” she says, “we tend not to go for complete authenticity. We’re creating a magical world and therefore it’s not always exactly what it was (in reality). Also, authenticity often gets most uncomfortable for singers to wear and to sing in. We have to take that into account whenever we’re creating something.”
“Not only that,” adds Janine Allen, “sometimes if it’s authentic it doesn’t come off (easily) – and sometimes it needs to come off in a matter of seconds.”
If it were the real deal, the costume that Christina Leinicke is wearing would likely be laced. For speed and efficiency, here it’s in place with a series of snaps and hooks.
Leslie Ann Smith is a cutter and draper, and she gives us a crash course in foundation garments, specifically as applicable to women prior to modern times: “Anything before the 20th century was mainly in corsets,” says, “so we do a lot of corsets, a lot of bone bodices.” To the modern female sensibility these various undergarments could well be classified as instruments of torture.
Time to look in on Jinks and Brown. In front of a well-lit mirror, Jinks is carefully applying makeup to his Violetta-in-the-making. Brown doesn’t look so mousy anymore.
“One of the primary things about his job,” Green informs us about Jinks, “is he has to paint the stage. You may have 12 or 13 wig or makeup artists painting different people. It’s very challenging to get many different skin tones, coloring, face shapes – and make them all look like they come from the same village or the same period, to make the story we’re telling believable on stage.”
Leaving the room, we pass by what Green calls their staging area, which contains drawings, fabric samples, and other preliminaries for upcoming productions. She points to an area devoted to “Thaïs,” another devoted to “Streetcar,” as well as operas not scheduled until later in the year: “La Traviata,” “The Ghosts of Versailles,” and “Dido and Aeneas.”
She adds, perhaps needlessly, “So… we do work ahead of time.”
As brief and as incomplete as it is, this sneak preview makes the eyes light up. This is not the last time today that I’ll feel like a kid in a candy store.
Rounding a corner, proceeding down a corridor, we come to an area containing to the most unusual garb possible.
“A lot of the non-traditional costuming falls in my corner,” says John Bishop, a senior cutter and draper for the company. “In LA Opera we have a rich history of non-traditional productions.” And so, in addition to strange or misshapen creatures, as in the company’s “Ring of the Nibelungs,” various oversized masks or body padding or prosthetics are created here and often in collaboration with Hallie Dufresne, whom we’ll get to in a moment.
When we watch an opera onstage, Green says, “It may appear that people just stand and sing, but the amount of physical energy expounded is equal to playing a full rugby match. They perspire a lot, they lose a lot of fluid.
“We spend a lot of time trying to figure out ways to make them not too hot, to make them comfortable, to put them in breathable fabric. Animals are often the hottest kind of costume to wear.”
Sharon McGunigle is LA Opera’s Head Tailor. She’s been with the company for 14 years and has headed up the tailoring department for ten of them. This particular department appears to specialize in men’s wear, and McGunigle shows and talks about several costumes that were created for “Don Giovanni” a few years back. Although the colors and the treatment of the fabric (shredding, overprinting, etc.) seem very modern, the overall shape and flair of the garments retain their basic 18th century look. It’s what Green was telling us earlier when she spoke of today’s fashion intermingling with period costumes of ages past.
Most intriguing, perhaps, was the use of hot pink to symbolize Don Giovanni’s sexuality, with the color seeming to migrate or spread to other characters’ outfits as well, a visually tangible element that underscored the emotional chessgames of the plot.
Hallie Dufresne bears the title of Master Craftsperson, and upon entering her studio or workshop one might expect to find props from “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings.”
She shows us some antlers (made from wire mesh covered in tape, with a resin-like coating) that she created for a production of “Falstaff.” A black galleon headpiece designed by Constance Hoffman for the chorus of Julie Taymor’s “The Flying Dutchman” is on view, as well as one of the tiny square hats, made of pineapple cloth, that the geishas wore in Robert Wilson’s spare production of “Madama Butterfly.”
“As a milliner for theater,” Dufresne says, “and especially for opera singers who aren’t always quite fond of wearing things on their head, I have to think about the weight of things, and I have to think about the proportion as well and what all of their actions are.”
Like everything else the character is wearing, hats, antlers, and other headgear have to make sense in the context of the staged work. Even so, Dufresne says, “My favorite things to do as a milliner are (to create) things that are outside the box.”
Later on I step back in to talk about the sense of illusion, and how it’s projected to the audience in order to transport them to a place outside of themselves. Dufresne holds up some designs for “The Ghosts of Versailles,” which is being presented next season as part of the Figaro Trilogy (Beaumarchais also inspired Mozart and Rossini). Although it takes place during the aftermath of the French Revolution, John Corigliano’s opera is fairly young (1991) in operatic years. What Dufresne shows me – floating disembodied heads in one instance, headless bodies in another – seems exquisite, almost magical.
“When it comes down to it,” she says, “it’s about suspension of disbelief.”
Speaking of which, it’s time to see what Darren Jinks has done with Melinda Brown. We crowd around the door and wait for the signal. Then we go in.
It’s a transformation worthy of Cinderella, and symptomatic of the magic that the LA Opera Costume Shop is able to create, again and again. And then, when it’s added to the staging, the singing, the orchestra… the experience can be one we’ll remember for a very long time.
“Porgy and Bess” is onstage through June 1at the Ahmanson Theatre in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles. Tickets, $30 to $95. Information: (213) 972-4400 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org.
“An American Soldier’s Tale” and “A Fiddler’s Tale” are performed on Saturday, May 10, at the Center Theater in Long Beach. Tickets, $29 to $160. Information: (562) 432-5934 or go to longbeachopera.org/tickets.
“Thaïs” opens on May 17, with six additional performances through June 7, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” opens on May 18, with two additional performances through May 24, both operas in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles. Tickets, $18 to $317 for “Thaïs” and $17 to $334 for “Streetcar.” Information: (213) 972-8001 or go to laopera.org.