The magic of Seattle Opera’s costume shop

Seattle Opera costume shop manager Susan Davis. Photo courtesy Seattle Opera and Bill Mohn Photography.

Seattle Opera costume shop manager Susan Davis. Photo courtesy Seattle Opera and Bill Mohn Photography.

With this “Ring” production here for the third time, you’d think all the kinks with costumes had been ironed out by now with just a few garments to be altered or remade, but there was plenty to do. Costume shop manager Susan Davis says views change. For instance, the costumes in 2001 were very full with yards and yards of fabric. “What seemed gorgeous and perfect in 2001 now seems too much,” she says, so the shop took several panels of fabric out of the gods’ and other coats and at the same time quite a bit of the hair out of the wigs.

Performers are all different, not just in body size, but shape and skin color and the way they move, as well as the kind of movement they have to do on stage. It all gets taken into account.

“We redesigned Erda’s neckline and cleavage for Maria Streijffert,” says Davis, “and her wig was altered to have a little more green and less red in it. We make changes to flatter the wearer.” And of course, every potential change, however small, is approved by the original designer.

“Thank goodness for digital photography!” says Davis, who has kept the photos flowing to Martin Pakledinaz, this Ring’s costume designer with whom she has a long connection and with whom she loves to work.

Siegfried’s costume got plenty of attention. “It’s such a big role, and the singer is so active and he carries so many props—the horn, the tarnhelm, the sword, the cloak—we have to make sure it all really works for him, all the way to the bloody shirt in ‘Gotterdammerung.’” This Siegfried, Stig Andersen, asked not to be wigged so he wouldn’t get too warm, so the hair people worked with his own hair, “styled and cut and maybe a touch of color because he’s very fair, just a very subtle thing.”

What to do if a performer is allergic to the fabric? It’s not uncommon, says Davis. This time, one of the Brunnhilde understudies is allergic to wool. “We checked to what extent and we found a raw silk similar to the wool (that Brunnhilde’s coat is made of) and made her a coat out of that,” says Davis.

Time itself, dry cleaning, flameproofing, alter colors. Many of the fabrics are specially dyed, and fade or change over the period of use and the shop can’t always get the right color back. There’s no way to keep it exact in the Norns’ dresses, but though the changes are obvious to the designers and costume shop, they are hardly noticeable to the audience. It’s more a question of the ambiance of the whole look of the production, so where they can the colors are brought back as close to the original as possible.

“In some operas I work on, I’ve thought: These costumes don’t really work out, what was the designer thinking?” says Davis, “but not with these. They all make sense from a design standpoint.” Her appreciation of Pakledinaz’ work is echoed by her workroom staff. “I’ve heard people there say, working with him you probably work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life, but do better work than you’ve ever done, so you come out exhausted but satisfied.”

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