As the Costume Shop’s Crafts Supervisor, Lia Surprenant, more than perhaps anyone else at the company, knows how bloody the opera business can be. All of the countless opera singers who have been imprisoned, tortured, or wounded in the dramas enacted on Seattle Opera’s stage in the past nine years have worn a costume with Surprenant’s signature artistry.
You are the “crafts supervisor” in Seattle Opera’s Costume Shop. What falls under the category of “crafts”?
Crafts are everything you wouldn’t consider to be a standard clothing item—jewelry, shoes, glasses, armor, hats, sometimes baldrics. Accessories, that sort of thing. And then I do all of the dyeing for the shop, unless we’re doing more than a 100-yard parcel, which we sometimes send out to dye in New York.
When we think about Lucia, we think of the iconic bloody dress. We don’t think about the person behind the
scenes who has to clean that dress and make it bright white for the next performance. Are you that person? What goes into that?
Wardrobe cleans the dress each night, but I’m the person who figures out what type of blood to use and what solution we can use to remove it. Blood, honestly, is really difficult. With something like this show, where it’s a white dress that becomes bloodied and has to become white again, it’s a special challenge. You have to be careful of what kind of fabric you use. Generally speaking you can’t use silk—which is what we use for most of our costumes because it’s especially beautiful—because the washable bloods still stain it. Usually polyester is a good choice for fabric because almost nothing can stain polyester, but it doesn’t have that rich look that something like a silk or a wool or a cotton might have. I do a lot of testing and experimentation. Susan [Davis, Costume Shop Manager,] will usually give me several samples of fabric, and I’ll try different types of blood on different types of fabric and wash it out in different ways.
What are some “different types of blood”?
Right now our favorite kind of blood is Nick Dudman Blood, which we affectionately call “Harry Potter” blood. It’s what they used in the movie. It’s a very realistic color and it works really well. We’ve also gotten another new type of blood that we haven’t tried yet. It’s called ICU Blood.
I should point out that most of the time when we do blood we do a permanent painted blood or a fabric patch blood. This is for somebody coming onstage already having been wounded, and it’s part of their permanent costume. That’s also challenging because directors always want that super shiny, bright fresh blood look and that’s really hard to do. It doesn’t really look like that when you get onstage under the lights, so we add things like super-fine glitter to the blood, or we’ll use silicone windshield sealant to make it shiny and wet.
Is there any carryover? Tricks of the trade that you find helpful in real life?
The best way to get blood out of a garment, if it’s a small quantity of your own blood, is to spit on it because there are enzymes in your saliva that take out your own blood.
You might be the only person I know who could dare to have a white rug and a white couch in her home.
I have too many animals for that.
Aside from dyes and blood, what else do you do with costumes?
We also do a lot of distressing, which is prematurely aging a costume through physical means—sanding, using a bench grinder to grind the fabric, rasping it with rasp tools to make it look worn and shredded and then using paints to make it look dirty. There is at least one show every season where we have to age something so that it looks like the performer/character has been beaten up, tortured, or held prisoner.
Sounds like you’re seeing our singers at their worst.
We actually do see performers at their most vulnerable, when they’re undressed, when they’re exposed emotionally as well as physically. We have to be very careful because we don’t want them to be uncomfortable. We want them to love what we’re making for them and feel that character coming out, so it’s kind of a tricky balance. I’m a shy person, and it’s difficult for me to invade someone’s personal space, but you have to do it sometimes—get right up to them and do stuff on their bodies—and it can be very difficult.
Have you always worked in costume design for theater?
I’ve done a horror movie.
It was called Night of the Beast. It was terrible; I don’t even know that it got released. All I know is that I worked on it and I never got paid.
Photos by Rozarii Lynch
This Staff Chat first appeared in Seattle Opera’s program for Lucia di Lammermoor in October 2010.