Saturday, January 12, 2019

A Q&A with Il trovatore's costume designer

Costume Designer Candace Frank 
In high school, Il trovatore's costume designer Candace Frank learned how to sew the clothes she couldn't find on the rack. Fast forward some years, Frank has created a successful career designing costumes for theatre, opera, circus, and burlesque. Her creations utilize an advanced knowledge of fit, mixed with a flair for the theatrical. Frank previously designed at Seattle Opera for Don Giovanni (Young Artists Program), and for The Combat (chamber opera). She has previously led the costume shops at Seattle University, Intiman Theatre, and ACT Theatre. You may have also seen her work onstage with Vespertine Opera, Sound Theatre Company, and Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders.

What’s the time period for this opera?
There is no exact time period; it’s open to your imagination. In the costumes, we reference pre-Renaissance era, some Tudor, and different courtly silhouettes. None of the looks live 100 percent in any time period (there’s even modern camo print for some of the soldiers). Some of the chorus members have jeans on. Some wear newsboy caps. Some have old-fashioned farmer hats. For the peasant class in this opera, it’s really a 200-year span of what working-class people have worn throughout the years. Also, the soldiers wear modern camo print.

For this show, there’s both an Original Set and Costume Designer (John Conklin), and a Costume Designer (you!). Can you tell me about how the costumes came together?

Seattle Opera approached (Stage Director Dan Wallace Miller) to see if he’d direct this opera using an existing production. But Dan likes to reimagine things. He’s not a status quo director, he likes to ask hard questions underlying in the work. In this case, we’re looking at social status. Traditionally, Il trovatore has these “gypsy” characters, which, in our show are simply depicted as peasants instead of Romani people. Working with Dan, I used the existing designs to tell a story with more danger, risk, and humanity

Michael Mayes (Di Luna), Nora Sourouzian (Azucena), and members of the Seattle Opera Chorus. Philip Newton photo

For example, I made the character Di Luna more tough and dangerous-looking. It was also important to me to show the soft romance of Manrico through the costuming. Both the peasants and the soldiers were somewhat clean in this show’s original iteration, so Dan and I decided to add some realness, some distressing, dirtying, and beating to their armor and war garb. This reflects the long war in the story, which both sides lose.

Basically, the original designs provided a launching point. It’s like when someone asks you to create a painting with a specific color palette. It was a fun creative challenge.

You're not exactly a status quo costume designer either, right? 
I usually do the more out-there shows. I hardly ever do the five-white-people-talking-in-a-living-room shows. I love imaginative work such as Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders (which has included characters like giant mice, will have giant musical numbers, and all sorts of crazy stuff). Alternatively, I also design plus-size clothing for my brand, Bawdy Love.

Photo courtesy of Lucia Neare's Theatrical Wonders. 

It also sounds like you and Director Dan Wallace Miller have a fruitful creative partnership. 
Absolutely. Every time I work with Dan, it’s a very collaborative process. Dan, Christopher Mumaw (Associate Set Designer), and I love taking on a show like this, and then the three of us work together to realize a world. It’s not very often you have the chance to create something like that. And it’s one thing that makes opera such an exciting art form to be a part of.

I think Leonora’s Tudor-inspired gowns are going to be crowd-pleasers. Can you talk about her different looks?
She starts off in a beautiful blue gown made of changeable silk. Changeable silk is a fabric that, when they weave it, there’s blue threads going one way, and pink threads going the other. So the color is really dimensional, and while blue, it has a pink and purple sheen to it.

Il trovatore is a story of the haves, and have-nots. And Leonora is part of the class of people that’s oppressing the peasant class. The world of the “haves” is cold, austere, metallic. And Leonora’s second dress is a reflection of that with a black and gray classic Tudor print. The cut of her two gowns are actually identical

What’s your favorite costume in the show, and why?
My favorite costume is Di Luna’s: He wears a floor-length leather cloak made out of three giant cow hides. Each hide was larger than a single work table in our costume shop. It’s got all these beautiful back-seams, and Tudor-style lines to it.

Then he’s got two big armor pauldrons over his shoulders. He’s ready for battle; always ready to kill.

You’ve talked to me about the “haves.” What were your color and texture inspirations for the “have-nots”?
The peasants wear a soft, warm, color palette. We’ve done lots of painting and distressing. The clothes need to look they are heirlooms, handed down through generations, and like the wearer needs every little piece to survive.

Il trovatore costume design by Candace Frank.
Is designing for opera different than with other art forms?
It’s grander, larger. Everything needs to be scaled up because of the theaters that the work is performed in, and also because of the grandness of the stories. In opera, there’s also much greater body diversity than in theater or dance. In opera, it all comes down to what the singers need.

You told me recently that opera is one of the most body-positive art forms. Why is body positivity crucial to costume design and fashion?
Because these stories are meant to be representative of all kinds of people, including people of all colors and sizes. Art, especially opera, represents the real world that we all come from.

Anything else?
The Seattle Opera costume shop is by far the best costume shop I’ve ever worked in. When I recently designed here for The Combat, I was amazed by how quickly after I would draw something it would be actualized in real-life with incredible care and detail. The work they do is incredible art in itself.

Seattle Opera's Il tlrovatore runs Jan. 12-26 at McCaw Hall. 
Tickets & info: